Commentary: Northwestern Seniors 2008 Tribute
by Jonathan Hodges

Leading up to Northwestern's final game of the 2008 regular season, the 23 seniors being honored at Senior Day deserve special mention for their dedication to the university and Northwestern football.  (This marks a special "bonus commentary" for the final week of the 2008 regular season).  First off, I will run through the team accomplishments over their time as Wildcats (note that I am including just the 2005-2008 time span as no 5th year seniors saw meaningful playing time in 2004):

Northwestern Football 2005 - 2008 (through 11 games)

Overall Record: 25-22 (0.532)
Big Ten Conference Record: 14-17
Home Record: 14-11

6+ wins in 3/4 seasons.
Bowl berths in 2/4 seasons.
Wins over the following Big Ten teams: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Purdue, and Wisconsin.
Wins over 3 ranked teams.

It's obvious that those are some solid numbers, especially considering the fact that this set of players overcame the passing of Coach Walker during the late summer of 2006 and have risen up to the challenge given by Coach Fitzgerald, who was (and still is) the youngest coach in I-A/FBS football.  That is quite possibly the biggest accomplishment of this squad, who took an obvious step back in the season following the coaching transition (which occurred about 2 months before the first game of the season and was obviously premature), but proceeded to increase their win total by (at least) 2 wins in each of the following seasons.  And, of course, this has culminated in the 2008 season where they posted 8 wins through 11 games and have NU in the mix for a January 1 bowl game, something that hasn't occurred since 2000, when NU shared the Big Ten title and went to the Alamo Bowl.

The 2008 team has also proven to be the true definition of a "team" - they have seen success despite not having a stand-out talent that has played head and shoulders above everyone else; at some point in the year virtually every player on the team has stepped up and contributed to a win, and one could argue that each game has a different MVP - despite suffering injuries to numerous significant players (7 starters lost time at some point) this team has stepped up with both veterans and underclassmen contributing to NU's winning ways - and with some talented underclassmen fighting for and taking playing time away from upperclassmen, the veterans have continued to stick with the team and contribute in ways that they can, whether it's on the practice field, on special teams, or just being there to support everyone from the bench.

And this tribute, for the most part, does not even cover the academic and community accomplishments of these student-athletes, who must practice and prepare for football alongside an already-busy collegiate life.  Remember that the vast majority of these players will never play organized football again and only a couple have reasonable expectations of moving on to play professional football (even then, the average NFL careers is around 3 years).  The time and effort put into playing collegiate football is amazing considering how short of time they actually play.

Now on to the individual accomplishments:

LB Malcom Arrington: 42 games (11 starts), 113 tackles, 11.0 TFLs, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU, 2 forced fumbles, 1 block.  Arrington really stepped up last season and slid into the MLB starting spot nicely for the first half of this season before sustaining an unfortunate season-ending knee injury.  He was a hard worker who came up the depth chart to continue NU's tradition of producing solid middle linebackers.
QB CJ Bacher: 32 games (26 starts), 615 for 1029 passing (59.8%) for 6,785 yards, 38 TDs, 41 INTs; 181 rushes for 251 yards, 8 TDs; 1 reception for 25 yards.  CJ has been the leader of the NU offense since taking over mid-2006 and has produced some impressive numbers, including some of the highest single-game passing numbers in Northwestern and Big Ten history in back-to-back games during 2007.  While he has made mistakes throwing the ball, he has given Northwestern chances to win football games and provides valuable leadership to the offense and the entire team.
OL Joel Belding: 24 starts.  An unsung hero on the offensive line who worked his way to starting status relatively early in his career only to get passed on the depth chart his senior season.  But he has stuck with it and provides a solid backup and, as Fitz has noted, has provided valuable experience and leadership to the underclassmen on the OL.
LS Phil Brunner: 33 games, 3 tackles, 1 fumble recovery, 1 forced fumble.  Long snapper Phil Brunner receives little credit, but all he's done has been consistently snapping the ball on punts and FG/XP tries through 3 seasons (2006-2008) and rarely, if ever, made a mistake.  Every time the ball gets back to the holder or punter and the kick gets off cleanly and without issue, credit Brunner for another solid performance.  He was a QB in high school and after arriving at NU decided to throw the ball backwards between his legs instead of forwards over his shoulder.  Extra kudos goes to Brunner who majored in chemical engineering at NU - I know it's a hard task because I did it as well (and only had marching band to worry about, not football).
RB Omar Conteh: 38 games (6 starts), 181 rushes for 731 yards (4.0 ypc), 8 TDs; 30 receptions for 276 yards, 2 TDs; 11 kickoff returns for 184 yards (16.7 yards/return).  Omar has done a nice job over the last 2 seasons filling in for Tyrell Sutton when he has been injured but unfortunately suffered a season-ending injury of his own during practice prior to the Ohio State game.  He had multiple 100+ yard rushing days in relief of Sutton in 2007 and provided a change-of-pace runner this year.  He was unlucky when Sutton emerged as the starter back in 2005 as he's been stuck as a backup since, although he has been fortunate to yield some playing time.  Another guy who has played his part and continued to put in the time and effort despite being passed on the depth chart.
P/H Kyle Daley: 21 games, 1/1 XPs (100%), 1 punt for 33 yards, 0-2 passing, 1 tackle.  Another quiet contributor, all Daley has done is provided a backup as a punter AND place kicker while being the primary holder for NU, executing his job at a high level the entire time and providing "solid footing" for Villarreal, the place kicker during that period.  While he's in a position that does not garner much credit, it is a very important role that must be executed perfectly every time to help his team's efforts, and he deserves credit for that.
OL Ramon Diaz:  Like some others, he experienced multiple injuries, keeping him out for much of the 2005 and 2007 seasons, and he never saw the playing field as he was passed over for others.  But he remained on the squad and contributed on the practice field and deserves credit for seeing it through some tough times.
LB Mike Dinard: 44 games (8 starts), 66 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 1 PBU, 1 forced fumble.  Dinard moved up the depth chart quickly and garnered some starts in 2006, especially after the loss of Nick Roach to injury.  In subsequent years he has been passed on the depth chart but continues to contribute both in practice, on special teams, and as a backup to relieve the starters (he has garnered more playing time in 2008 after the injury to Arrington).  Another team player, literally, who has continued to give his all despite being passed over for his primary role.
S Todd Dockery: 19 games, 4 tackles.  Dockery has been mostly used on special teams duties over the past 2 seasons and has stuck it out to help contribute in those areas despite not seeing the field as a safety.  Another role player who deserves credit for the amount of time and effort invested in the program.
DT John Gill: 46 games (40 starts), 151 tackles, 21.5 TFLs, 10.0 sacks, 5 PBUs, 4 fumble recoveries, 1 forced fumble, 1 block.  Gill is one of the few players with clear next-level talent who has also started the most games of any current NU player and continues to put up impressive statistics - especially for a DT, who typically do not garner such large numbers.  He has been a big factor for the NU defense over the past 4 seasons and will likely be playing on Sundays next year.
OL Tanner Highlen: He started his career on the DL and was named practice player of the week on defense (3 separate times), then switched to OL after his second year and was named practice player of the week 2 more times.  Unfortunately, he has been hampered by injury and underclassmen passing him on the depth chart and will likely graduate without garnering any playing time, but he again stuck it out despite the setbacks and contributed as a key practice player on this NU squad.
DE Rejaie Johnson: 10 games, 9 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 2 sacks.  A hybrid DE/LB, Johnson played in limited relief duty in 2005 and 2007 but was out for the 2006 season with a foot injury and most of the 2008 season with a shoulder injury.  Yet another hard worker who has contributed to the program although doesn't necessarily garner the statistics to show for the effort.  Despite being passed over for a major contributing role and suffering multiple injuries, he has stuck with the program and will be honored on senior day.
OL Keegan Kennedy: 11 starts at OL (42 games, 31 on DL), 19 tackles, 2 TFLs, 2 sacks, 1 PBU.  Kennedy garnered some playing time through his first 3 seasons at DL but switched to OG prior to his 4th year and has started every game in 2008 at that position.  An obviously hard worker who underwent a large position switch late in his collegiate career in order to contribute to Northwestern's efforts on the field.
LB Prince Kwateng: 45 games (20 starts), 134 tackles, 9.0 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, 2 PBUs, 2 fumble recoveries, 4 forced fumbles.  Kwateng is a quick linebacker who has started at LB for most of the past 2 seasons and provides leadership on defense this year as a senior captain of the team.  He has racked up some good numbers this season and provides on the field leadership for the LB unit, which includes 2 underclassmen starters.
WR Ross Lane: 47 games (36 starts), 152 receptions for 1,934 yards (12.7 yards/reception), 11 TDs.  Lane has been a consistent and sure-handed target for Northwestern QBs over the past 4 years and his highlights include his game-winning reception in the comeback over Iowa in 2005 and his first TD of this season, a game-tying grab against Michigan in Ann Arbor.  He has always found a way of making amazing catches (i.e. the game-winner over Nevada in 2007) and is high on NU career receiving lists.
DE Kevin Mims: 47 games (36 starts), 154 tackles, 16.5 TFLs, 5.0 sacks, 1 INT, 5 PBUs, 1 fumble recovery, 2 forced fumbles.  Mims' most memorable moment was an interception during the Sun Bowl in 2005 that he returned for a TD during NU's 22 point first quarter surge.  He has been a fixture at DE virtually ever since and has racked up impressive statistics to go along with that time.  He, of course, is well known for his parents' tailgate mobile (as featured on ESPN and the Big Ten Network this season), but has also invested a lot of time into the program and, as Fitz has noted, is an extremely hard worker whose efforts have paid off.
CB David Oredugba: 38 games, 24 tackles, 1 PBU.  David seemed destined for a starting CB spot before the emergence of underclassmen Vaughn, Mabin, and Bolden this season, but has continued to contribute in his role as a backup and special teams player.  His efforts on punt and kickoff coverage this year have helped NU put together some impressive numbers in terms of limiting opponents' return yardage.  He also has the infamous tip to Brendan Smith against Minnesota this season that set up the game-winning INT return for a TD.  Anotehr example of someone who stuck with the program despite not garnering a large role.
WR Eric Peterman: 47 games (25 starts), 145 receptions for 1,817 yards (12.5 yards/reception), 10 TDs; 19 rushes for 73 yards; 3 for 5 passing (60%) for 68 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT.  Peterman began his career as a QB down on the depth chart and then made the wise switch to WR, where he made an immediate impact, catching a long TD pass to help propel NU over Purdue in 2005.  Since then he's been a multi-threat weapon for NU with his speed, receiving skills, and even throwing skills as he tossed a TD pass against Purdue this season.  And, more impressively, he has sustained an excellent GPA in industrial engineering and contributed in many ways to the community, being nominated for multiple awards this season.
OL Alex Rucks: 5 games.  Despite suffering multiple injury setbacks, he found the playing field on a few occasions and has provided some depth at OL positions while contributing in practice.  Another role player who deserves acknowledgement on senior day.
RB Tyrell Sutton: 39 games (35 starts), 702 rushes for 3,772 yards (5.4 ypc), 31 TDs; 144 receptions for 1,215 yards, 6 TDs.  Sutton is an "undersized" guy for his position and during recruiting the Mr. Football Ohio was looked over by the big boys (i.e. OSU), but fortunately NU came calling.  As a true freshman he emerged as Northwestern's starter following injuries to 2 guys ahead of him on the depth chart, and he never looked back, racking up over 1,400 yards that season as NU's offense wowed the nation.  NU experienced a shift in coaching staff, especially on the offensive side of the ball, in 2006, yet he reached 1,000 yards rushing.  And in both 2007 and 2008 he was hampered with injuries but still managed to contribute to the Wildcats' efforts as he fought back hard to recover and get onto the playing field.  While his numbers have suffered due to these setbacks, he still commands a high place on virtually every NU career rushing record, and still has a chance to reach the number one spot on some of them if he returns for a bowl appearance.
K Amado Villarreal: 28 games, 3 tackles, 64/67 XPs (95.5%), 30/40 FGs (75%) 49 yard long; 32 kickoffs 51.2 yards/kickoff average, 1 touchback.  Villarreal has taken over place kicking duties for 2 seasons now and has done an admirable job and now ranks near the top in some major field goal kicking categories at NU, and also sports one of the highest made FG percentages in Northwestern history.  Despite not being a "flashy" kicker who is well-known, he has quietly taken care of business and been a reliable scoring option for Northwestern over the last 2 seasons.
WR Rasheed Ward: 47 games (18 starts), 114 receptions for 1,126 yards (9.9 yards/reception), 3 TDs.  Ward never put up as big of numbers as Lane or Peterman, but has been just as reliable and is part of the 1,000+ receiving yards club along with them and Sutton.  Many have tabbed him as a "possession receiver" and if that means a consistent, reliable WR option, then I guess it fits.  A product of Chicago, he has succeeded at the collegiate level close to home and has been a hard worker throughout his NU career.
WR Jeff Yarbrough: 28 games (plus special teams duty in 2008), 23 receptions for 219 yards (9.5 yards/reception), 2 TDs.  Yarbrough has been hampered by injuries throughout his career but has still contributed to NU; his best game came against Michigan State in 2007 where he had 104 yards and a TD reception.  This season he has contributed to NU's cause on special teams.  Another figher who has come back from injuries to contribute to this team's success.

Every senior on the list deserves acknowledgement on senior day against Illinois for their success on the field, in the classroom, and as a representative of Northwestern University.  I will take this opportunity to congratulate them and will also do the same come Saturday.

Go 'Cats!!!

e-mail: j-hodges@alumni.northwestern.edu

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jhodges is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com.  His commentary and game analyses appear regularly during the season and occasionally in the offseason.