Oct. 16, 1999
BY ERICA HURTT
Chicago's colorful Cows on Parade street exhibit has created a national
craze, but according to Northwestern linebacker Conrad Emmerich, Evanston
has some cows of its own that are certain to command attention.
"We get a hard time from the other defensive guys because they say we are
the ‘sacred cows,’" Emmerich said referring to the Wildcats' linebacker unit
led by Emmerich, junior Napoleon Harris and sophomore Kevin Bentley. "Our
defense is set up so that we make the plays."
The 'Cats linebackers had to adjust to a new aggressive 4-3 defensive
formation introduced by first-year head coach Randy Walker and unit coach
Jay Peterson. This setup puts the linebackers on the attack at all times.
The transition was a challenging one, according to Harris, whom teammates
"We had to erase Barnett's system out of our heads," Harris said about
former NU coach Gary Barnett and his style of play. "I think it was easiest
for Kevin because he was the youngest. I think he is putting his best foot
forward right now."
Bentley, who has recorded 78 tackles, two sacks, an interception for a
touchdown, three pass breakups, and two fumble recoveries in six games, is
quick to express his support for the new system.
"Last year we had a passive style," said Bentley who spent most of last
year playing on special teams. "We were a sit-and-wait kind of team and I
didn't like that."
Coach Peterson joined Northwestern's staff after spending eight years as an
assistant at his alma mater Miami, where he had a standout career as a
running back for the RedHawks. He says the linebackers have been receptive
to coaching and the new system suits the players better.
"It allows the guys to just go," Peterson said. "It is a defense that
reacts and attacks instead of one where you do a lot of reading. Our biggest challenge is that the players need to trust it and not revert
back to the old system.”
Judging from the way these players describe the qualifications for earning
a linebacker post in the Big Ten, it is easy to understand that an
offensive-minded defense suits them well.
"You have to be aggressive and want to punish people," Bentley said.
"You just got to be a crazy man," said Emmerich, who's nickname is 'Tick',
short for lunatic. "You don't have to be the fastest or the strongest, you
just have to have a few screws loose."
For Harris being a linebacker means having the right combination of
attitude and heart.
But the players warn that a good linebacker must also possess control and
smarts. They need to know what is going on in front and in back of them,
and anticipate the other team's moves.
"We have a double duty," Bentley said. "If they run we have to be there.
And if they throw we're there."
Considering they hadn't seen any game time as a unit before this season,
and they had to master a new playing scheme, the 'Cats linebacker unit has
made a significant impact on the field early on. The veteran leadership of
Emmerich, a senior, has helped smooth the transition. Emmerich has
collected 53 tackles through six games.
"Conrad is the big physical presence we need in the middle," Peterson said.
"He has great intensity and focus, and he acts as the quarterback of the
Emmerich understands this role and calls himself the "glue" of the defense.
"I try to keep us together," he said. "Not just the linebackers, but the
Emmerich says playing with Barry Gardner, the nation's leading tackler for
the 1998 season, taught him how to play this part.
"Barry taught me to stay calm no matter what," Emmerich said. "It is never
as good or as bad as you think it is. You just have to stay on the same
level and do your job."
Bentley says his style is laid back and he plays more for the fun of the
game. "Conrad is the one who is all revved up," he says.
Emmerich's desire to make plays motivates him. He also looks to a rowdy
crowd to ignite the fire inside him.
"The best feeling is when you get a big stand," Emmerich said. "When you
come off the field and the crowd is on their feet, it just makes me want to
go out there and do it again."
And if Emmerich or the fans can't rally the troops, Peterson is certainly a
motivating force, according to the players.
"Sometimes I think he gets more into it than we do. In fact, I know he
does," Emmerich said with a chuckle.
Off the field the linebackers spend a great deal of time weight training
together and watching film. They meet in Emmerich's hotel room the night
before road games and talk about the enemy - the opposing team's offense.
"And when we get together on the field, we play with linebacker pride,"
Harris said. "As a unit, we are second to none."
Harris has racked up 62 tackles this season and one sack. According to
Peterson, he is the best athlete in the group, and is starting to come into
his own as a football player. The Illinois native had visions of being a
basketball player, but has dedicated himself to being a full-time football
player and is already seeing the benefits of that commitment.
One can't help but consider what a year of maturity under the new system
could do for the linebacker unit. All three will be back next year with a
crop of talented rookies. Sophomore linebacker Billy Silva also will be a
force on defense in the future, according to Peterson.
"Billy is the first sub in," Peterson said. "If we had a four-linebacker
defense, he would be a starter. All nine of them [linebackers] are talented
and work well together."
But Peterson doesn't do much forecasting. He says the future is now — in the
world of college athletics.
Emmerich agrees. In his second to last season with the Wildcats he isn't
thinking about anything but playing football each Saturday with linebacker
"Defensively, I expect us to go out there and play our butts off every day,"
he said. "We just want to dominate every play and every game. On behalf of
the unit, I think we can do that."
At the end of this month the bovines that line Michigan Avenue will be
removed and sold to the highest bidder for charity. But it looks like the
"sacred cows" of Northwestern's linebacker unit have a promising future and
will be around for a while.