NCF Nation: Will Hampton

Pat Fitzgerald got a little defensive Tuesday when asked about his newfound willingness to play true freshmen.

"You're talking to a guy that played as a freshman," the Northwestern coach said. "I'm not anti playing freshmen. I look at it from a perspective of being realistic."

Northwestern never has freshmen enroll early, so Fitzgerald and his assistants spend the first 2-3 weeks of preseason camp evaluating the class and projecting who can help them in the coming season. They also consider how freshmen will adjust to the rigors of college, especially the academic component.

"It's deeper than whether or not he can help us in the kicking game or whether or not we sell kids a bag of goods in recruiting and say you're going to play as a freshman," Fitzgerald said. "It's their future."

Few players have made the cut in Fitzgerald's tenure.

Fitzgerald used five true freshmen in 2006, his first season as Northwestern's head coach, but he did so largely out of necessity after Northwestern lost a sizable senior class. Fitzgerald played only two true freshmen in 2007 and two more in 2008 before using three freshmen last fall.

But through the first seven games of 2010, Northwestern already has used five true freshmen: defensive lineman Will Hampton, running back Adonis Smith and receivers Venric Mark, Rashad Lawrence and Tony Jones.

The early returns are promising.
  • Lawrence has caught seven passes for 138 yards (19.7-yard average)
  • Jones recorded a 45-yard touchdown catch on his first play in college
  • Mark has contributed on returns and in the receiving game, and he gained 29 yards on a run last Saturday against Michigan State, the team's longest rush of the season
  • Smith, who didn't play until Week 5, provided a jolt to a struggling run game with 44 yards against the Spartans
  • Hampton has helped with the D-line depth and played in five games

There have been a few hiccups -- Mark fumbled against Minnesota, while Jones drew two offside penalties in the game -- but the potential is pretty obvious. Lawrence and Jones have accounted for three of the team's longest five pass plays this season.

"We thought these guys would contribute," Fitzgerald said, "and they're just working hard and getting better and better."

Fitzgerald admits he can be too conservative about freshmen, but he's not going to change how he handles them.

"Sometimes we're wrong," he said. "Sometimes maybe we look back and say, 'Gosh, I wish I would have played him or I wish I would have put them in.' But I'd rather err on the side of being a year late than a day early."

Recapping the Big Ten scrimmages

August, 23, 2010
8/23/10
9:07
AM ET
Scrimmages took center stage around the Big Ten this weekend as teams moved closer to the end of camp and the start of game preparations. I have links and a few thoughts on each scrimmage below, but only on the teams that put out information about what happened or had media in attendance. Those teams are: Illinois, Indiana, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State and Wisconsin.

I'll do my best with Michigan's scrimmage, which oddly was open to fans but not media.

ILLINOIS

The Illini broke camp in Rantoul, Ill., and scrimmaged Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Check out what happened here and here and here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Illinois' coaches can talk all they want about running back by committee, but it's clear that junior Mikel Leshoure is the team's top option. As he did throughout the second half of last season, Leshoure showcased his big-play ability Saturday with a 49-yard touchdown run. Leshoure finished with 102 rush yards and two scores on only 12 carries. Jason Ford also had a nice day Saturday, but Leshoure is the guy to watch out for this fall.
  • After struggling in the first camp scrimmage, Illinois' first-team defense rebounded nicely Saturday. According to Mark Tupper, the first-team defense allowed only 59 net yards in 41 plays in the scrimmage. Defensive end Michael Buchanan and linebacker Martez Wilson were among the standouts.
  • Although starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had a shaky day, Illinois might have found another capable wide receiver in Eddie McGee, the team's former backup quarterback. McGee beat cornerback Miami Thomas on a jump ball in the end zone to record a touchdown and finished with three receptions for 56 yards.
INDIANA

The Hoosiers held a 96-play Saturday at Memorial Stadium, and you can read all about it here, here (subscription required) and here.

Quick hitters
  • Redshirt freshman Dusty Kiel has established himself as the team's backup quarterback in camp. Kiel, who has been competing with Edward Wright-Baker, had an excellent scrimmage, completing 14 of 16 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown.
  • Indiana used the scrimmage to assess its offensive line depth and limited the participation for sure-fire starters like center Will Matte and right tackle James Brewer. Coach Bill Lynch wanted to get a better read on his backup center and had Jordan Marquette, Chris Ahlfeld and Steve Fiacable take reps in the scrimmage. Ted Bolser stepped up nicely at tight end with five catches for 46 yards and a touchdown.
  • The Hoosiers' already-shaky secondary suffered a blow as safety Chris Adkins had to be carried off the field because of an ankle injury. The extent of Adkins' injury is unclear at this point.
MICHIGAN

Michigan held a scrimmage Saturday at Michigan Stadium. It was open to some fans but not media, and while I love fan reports, I'm relying mostly on this video from the school's official website.
  • I really like what I've seen from freshman running back Stephen Hopkins, both in Saturday's scrimmage and during the Big Ten Network's tour stop. He gives the Wolverines a different look in the backfield at 6-foot, 227 pounds. Michigan boasts plenty of speed backs, but Hopkins provides the type of downhill, between-the-tackles running you need in the Big Ten.
  • Quarterback Denard Robinson looked pretty smooth in the scrimmage video, both as a passer and a runner. He hit his receivers in stride and broke off a long touchdown run, juking safety Jared Van Slyke before reaching the end zone. All signs continue to point toward Robinson being named the starter, but we'll see.
MICHIGAN STATE

The Spartans held a 130-play controlled scrimmage Saturday at Spartan Stadium, closed to the media. The defense prevailed 45-32 as the team used a modified scoring system. Recaps can be found here and here.

Quick hitters
  • It was a good day for the defense and a great day for the linebackers, who should be Michigan State's strongest unit this fall. Eric Gordon recorded a scrimmage-best nine tackles, while Greg Jones added eight, including two for loss. Jon Misch had 2.5 tackles for loss and a quarterback hurry, and Chris Norman had six tackles and a pass breakup. "The linebackers were very active," coach Mark Dantonio said.
  • Wide receiver B.J. Cunningham is having a very strong camp, and he continued it Saturday with five receptions for 67 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown from Kirk Cousins. Cousins and Cunningham hooked up for two touchdowns in the team's first fall scrimmage. It's a pretty crowded mix at receiver, but Cunningham has put himself in a great position.
MINNESOTA

Minnesota held an open scrimmage Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, and you can read all about it here, here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Minnesota's first-string offensive line stepped up nicely in the scrimmage, keeping quarterback Adam Weber safe and allowing him to complete 7 of 9 passes for 70 yards and two touchdowns. There was, however, a significant drop-off when the second- and third-team offensive linemen entered the scrimmage. "I didn't feel like some of the [second and third team] took advantage of the opportunity to go play today," coach Tim Brewster told the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press.
  • Freshman running back Donnell Kirkwood has put himself in the mix for carries this fall alongside Duane Bennett and DeLeon Eskridge. Kirkwood had 19 carries in Saturday's scrimmage with a long run of 14 yards. Offensive coordinator Jeff Horton praised Kirkwood when we talked a few weeks ago.
  • MarQueis Gray is still getting reps as a reserve quarterback, but it's coming clear his primary role this fall will be at wide receiver, as long as Weber stays healthy. Gray seems to be embracing the change, and his big frame could really help the Gophers after the loss of Eric Decker. "I am pretty sure I can find a hole somewhere to catch the ball and get upfield for Weber when he throws it to me," he told the Star Tribune.
NORTHWESTERN

The Wildcats ended their off-campus training in Kenosha, Wis., with an open scrimmage. Head coach Pat Fitzgerald held out a large group of starters on both sides, so second- and third-teamers got most of the work. Recaps can be found here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Freshman receiver Venric Mark will make an immediate impact this fall, especially for Northwestern's middling return teams. Mark had an excellent scrimmage, recording a 28-yard touchdown catch and breaking off several big returns. Generously listed at 5-8 and 165 pounds, Mark also threw a block that helped classmate Adonis Smith reach the end zone.
  • A battle could be brewing at backup quarterback. As starter Dan Persa watched from the sideline, true freshman Trevor Siemian completed 10 of 13 passes for 112 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Siemian could push redshirt freshman Evan Watkins, who completed only four of seven passes.
  • Freshman defensive end Will Hampton could work his way into the rotation this fall. Hampton recorded a tackle for loss in the scrimmage.
OHIO STATE

Ohio State held its jersey scrimmage Saturday at Ohio Stadium, as the offense prevailed 54-48 after 130-140 plays. The scrimmage was open to the media, and you can find recaps here, here and here.

Quick hitters
  • Quarterback Terrelle Pryor had a so-so day, although he wore a no-contact jersey and couldn't be the running threat he'll be after Sept. 4. Pryor completed only 10 of 24 pass attempts but did fire a 25-yard touchdown strike to Taurian Washington, considered the front-runner for the No. 3 wide receiver spot. He also found tight end Jake Stoneburner for a 25-yard gain and nearly threw an interception in the end zone.
  • Andrew Sweat appears to have a slight edge on Etienne Sabino for the third starting linebacker spot. Sabino entered camp as the favorite to start, but Sweat logged more time with the first-team defense Saturday and recovered a Brandon Saine fumble.
  • Coach Jim Tressel said he hopes to get defensive end Nathan Williams (knee) back by the Sept. 2 opener against Marshall. Meanwhile, several young defensive linemen stood out Saturday. Redshirt freshman Adam Bellamy recorded three sacks and true freshman Johnathan Hankins added one.
WISCONSIN

The Badgers scrimmaged Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. The session was open to the media, and you can read all about it here and here.
  • Wisconsin's offense moved the ball decently but struggled to finish drives, as Antonio Fenelus picked off a Scott Tolzien pass and safety Aaron Henry broke up a pass in the end zone. It was a theme throughout the scrimmage. There's little doubt Wisconsin can control the clock and keep moving the chains with its balanced attack, but it must execute in the red zone.
  • Freshman running back James White had a good day and could push Zach Brown for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart. White had runs of 29, 26 and 22 yards, the last for a touchdown, in the scrimmage. Starting tailback John Clay, by the way, had 11 carries for 51 yards.
  • Backup quarterback Jon Budmayr had a tough scrimmage, going 0-for-9 passing on his first three series with two near interceptions. He finished 9-for-27 for 107 yards for a touchdown and an interception. Wisconsin really can't lose Tolzien and would get a big boost if Curt Phillips can return from his knee injury early in the season.

Northwestern recruiting analysis

February, 4, 2010
2/04/10
12:05
PM ET
Northwestern Wildcats

The class

Recruits: 17 (all high school seniors, no early enrollees)

Top prospects: Offensive tackle Paul Jorgenson continues an impressive run of O-line recruiting by the Wildcats. Chance Carter is a talented edge rusher, while quarterback Trevor Siemian fits what Northwestern looks for to lead its spread offense.

Sleepers: The running back position is anything but solidified, and late signee Adonis Smith could compete for carries very early. Athletes Kain Colter and Venric Mark give Northwestern excellent speed and flexiblity, while Tony Jones could end up being a very good addition at wide receiver.

Needs met: The Wildcats needed defensive line help and got it with Carter and tackles Will Hampton and Sean McEvilly. Northwestern couldn't have a class without a running back and added Smith, and Pat Fitzgerald's staff also bolstered the offensive skill positions. The return game really needed a boost and Northwestern brought in several players who can contribute there, especially Mark.

Analysis: A small class allowed Fitzgerald and his assistants to be fairly selective, and they certainly upgraded several positions, namely defensive line and wide receiver. It was important to add both a running back and a quarterback, and the Wildcats actually picked up two signal-callers in Siemian and Colter. Offensive line wasn't a major need after the last few recruiting classes, but Jorgenson is a guy who won't be on the sideline too long.

Scouts Inc. grade: C

What Pat Fitzgerald said:

  • "We've got a lot of depth now at running back. We didn't graduate anyone this year, and we might only graduate one next year. So to add Adonis there, it was kind of our target, to add one back. We were in recruiting efforts with a couple other guys, and Adonis was a perfect fit for us. He's a physical kid. He's closing in on 195 pounds, so he's got good size. He's smooth, he catches the ball well."
  • "We needed to get a couple of quarterbacks. We went into it thinking we might only need one, but then when Joe Mauro had to retire early, we moved forward and ended up signing two. We signed two very athletic and very dynamic quarterbacks. We're excited about those guys."
  • (on the defensive backs) "They all can really run. All three are really athletic. All three were at some point in their careers kick returners or punt returners. So they bring that element to the football team. I feel really good about the talent we have internally right now in the program."

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