EVANSTON, Ill. -- Senior Jacob Schmidt prides himself on consistency, and lucky for him, that’s the trait Northwestern coaches are looking for in their lead running back.
Even Schmidt admits his competition, sophomores Adonis Smith and Mike Trumpy, are more dynamic backs. But when it comes to producing what Northwestern asks of its running backs, the 5-foot-10, 205-pound Schmidt stands tall.
“I think if you’re looking at who has been the most consistent, it would have to be Jacob Schmidt,” Northwestern running backs coach Matt MacPherson said. “He just keeps on going. You put him in a situation, and he’s going to be where he’s supposed to be, when he’s supposed to be, and he’s going to do it with the technique that we want.”
Schmidt has separated himself from the other running backs through his footwork, track, eyes and ability to make plays. They’re the main areas MacPherson pays attention to when reviewing game and practice film.
“The first thing we talk about is the correct footwork,” MacPherson said. “Certain plays are designed to go certain places. Your footwork and the track you run is designed to give you a chance to put the ball where we want it.
“We want consistent track. We want consistent eyes. And we want the ability to consistently make plays -- breaking arm tackles, putting the ball in the right spot, making a guy miss in the open field.”
Trumpy has witnessed Schmidt do all those things every day in practice and has tried to emulate him.
“I think that’s my problem; I get too distracted too much,” said Trumpy, who rushed for a team-leading 530 yards last season. “I’m not just focusing on the moment. That comes into consistency. When you’re not focusing, you’re inconsistent or whatnot. That’s probably the reason why Jacob is who is [who he is]. He’s always consistent. He’s always focused.”
Schmidt has demonstrated those skills mostly on the practice field and has had less success in games. He rushed for 217 yards and four touchdowns on 64 carries as a sophomore and 161 yards and four touchdowns on 49 carries last season.
Last year, he began showing in Week 4 more of what he was capable of when given an opportunity. Against Central Michigan, he rushed for two touchdowns and caught four passes. A week later against Minnesota, he rushed for another touchdown. Against Purdue the following week, he scored another rushing touchdown and had four receptions.
Just when Schmidt felt he was making a true impact, misfortune struck. After scoring touchdowns in three consecutive games, he tore a ligament in his right ankle in the following game against Michigan State.
Schmidt missed the rest of the regular season and returned to catch one pass in the TicketCity Bowl. He had surgery following the bowl game, and he missed the spring practice while still recovering.
“I was playing well for a couple weeks there, and it was exciting,” Schmidt said. “To be the guy was fun. To play at that level was fun. The injury did come at an unfortunate time.
“Would I change anything? No. The injury made me take a step back and re-focus on all the things. It drove me through the offseason and in my rehab just to get back and have a great fifth year this final season.”
The injury and then the arrival of fall camp made Schmidt realize his time was running out. His focus and consistency always have been his strengths, but they’ve gone to a new height this season.
“I think just the sense of urgency is a little bigger,” Schmidt said. “Being a fifth year and having four to five months left in my football career, it makes it much more real and that much more time sensitive. We have big goals, big expectations for this year.”
Those expectations are completely team related for Schmidt. While he’s put all of his energy into competing for the starting spot, he ultimately wants what’s best for Northwestern. If that means someone else being the guy, he’ll accept it.
“Wherever they want me, I will play,” Schmidt said. “I’m not going to complain if I’m a limited rep guy or a third-down guy. I just want to do my role to the best of my ability. If that’s starting 12 games, that’s starting 12 games. If that’s coming in running routes, it’s running routes.”
Heading into Saturday’s season opener against Boston College, Schmidt and Trumpy are officially listed as starting running backs on Northwestern’s depth chart. Both are expected to be given an equal shot at winning the job.
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald hasn’t had a true bell cow since Tyrell Sutton in 2008. If Fitzgerald declares one that this season, it will not only be based on game production.
“I’m kind of like the state of Missouri; I’m kind of like show me,” Fitzgerald said. “I want to see it, and I want to see it day in and day out and rep in and rep out. It’s not a popularity contest. It’s a rushing contest. It’s not about doing it on Saturdays during that three-hour window.
“Looking at the body of work, not just last year, last spring or this fall, Jacob has been the most consistent. Mike and Adonis are chewing on his hind parts. All three are going to have big roles this year. How and what and where and when, that will be to be determined. But I think we have three guys who can help us win football games.”