Northwestern assistant Dennis Springer is married to a professional ballerina, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that he knows the value of a good dancer.
Springer coaches the Wildcats’ wide receivers, a position undergoing a bit of a makeover this spring after losing seven players from a group that finished last in the Big Ten in catches, yards and receiving touchdowns. The coaching staff is hoping that an injection of fresh blood from elsewhere on the roster mixed with a pack of young athletes can give the receiver room a looser, more energized, competitive vibe. If that includes busting a few moves along the way, Springer is all for it.
Green (silky hips, towel twirler) and Reese (aggressive Macarena, WWE-caliber golden locks) spent their first season in Evanston dancing on the sidelines. The roommates were ringleaders (a few others tried, but as Reese puts it: "Not everyone is ready to be in the circle") of a freshman class that found a unique way to contribute to the gameday atmosphere last fall.
"It started as just an in-the-moment thing," Green said. "We were just saying, 'Hey, let’s have fun. If we can’t waste our energy on the field, we might as well waste it on the sideline.' I wish we had practiced. It could’ve been a lot better than what it was."
Technical quality aside -- the boys could use a few lessons from Mrs. Springer -- the dancing was good enough to provide the Northwestern sideline with a burst of fun heading into the fourth quarter each week during a resurgent, 10-3 season. It earned Green and Reese, who both agree that Green is the superior dancer, an unexpected brush with fame before ever getting on the field in college.
Springer said he didn’t know it was going on at first, because he was focused on the field, but by the time some videos started going viral the staff was clued in enough for head coach Pat Fitzgerald to call a team meeting and ask them for a live demonstration.
"Coach Fitz talks a lot about guys being engaged and being involved in the game," Springer said. "If your role is to bring energy to the guys that are out there playing, that’s what we do."
Green and Reese are both candidates to be in the guys-out-there-playing category next fall, along with fellow second-year receivers Charlie Fessler, Flynn Nagel and Jelani Roberts. Reese, who played defensive back last season, is one of three players Northwestern moved to wide receiver from elsewhere this spring. Former running back Solomon Vault and former safety Marcus McShepard are the others. Those seven players make up the core of the receiver rebuild in Evanston this spring.
"Moving us there was about competition and pushing other guys," said Reese, who has missed most of spring practice while recovering from a knee injury. "Making the receiver room better and adding a bit of flair and swagger to the receiver room that some of the other guys didn’t necessarily have, trying to change the attitude a little bit."
Northwestern’s offense completed 22 passes that went for 20 or more yards last fall, which was 124th out of 128 FBS teams in that category. The team’s leading returning receiver, senior Austin Carr, had 16 catches in 2015 and was the only receiver on the roster with more than 300 receiving yards. Carr remains a leader at the position and a helper to the influx of new talent, but he needed some reinforcements.
Though the Wildcats got away with relying on a workhorse running back and a stingy defense a year ago instead of asking their rookie quarterback to make a lot of throws, Springer and the rest of the staff know that is not a sustainable model for success. Progress is slow with so many young and new players to teach, but Springer feels the group has made some significant strides in the past month as the team heads into the final week of spring practice.
"We’ve had more explosive-play opportunities this spring than we’ve had in the past," he said. "We still have a long way to go and a lot of growth that has to take place between now and the fall, but we like the direction we’re headed in right now."
Green and Reese are happy with their personal direction as well. They plan to pass the sideline entertainment torch down to the incoming freshman class during the summer and find a new way to have fun on Saturdays.
"I’m hoping the next moves I break will be a touchdown dance or a little first-down celebration," Reese said. "I’m hoping my sideline dancing days are over."
Those days will be missed.