For the second week in a row, junior weak-side linebacker Bryce McNaul led Northwestern in tackles and earned the coaching staff’s Defensive Player of the Week award.
Judging by these honors and other comments, it’s probably not a stretch to say McNaul has developed into the Wildcats’ best defender going into Saturday’s game at Penn State.
That’s not too shabby for a young man who had just 8 career tackles entering this season, but his lack of statistics don’t reflect his true talent level. McNaul has started the last 6 games -- and it’s the first time in his career he has been healthy enough to play six consecutive games.
Here’s a rundown of McNaul’s injuries. This might take a while, so exhale before diving in.
--Three days before the Eden Prairie, Minn., native was scheduled to report to fall camp for the 2007 season, the true freshman suffered a “real bad” pull in his right hamstring.
“That was like the first time I was injured as a football player,” McNaul said. “I was thinking I had to go above and beyond the training protocols that they gave me. It was kind of a foolish high school Mr. Invincible kind of thing. I tried to do too much. I didn’t really know where my body’s limitations were when it came to hamstring pulls.”
--That ensured McNaul’s first season would be his redshirt year, but he showed enough promise that the coaches thought he could compete for the weak-side linebacker job as a redshirt freshman. He was working as the No. 2 Will LB in spring ball until he separated his right shoulder.
--His shoulder healed sufficiently that he resumed his pursuit of the job in fall camp, but that pursuit didn’t last long.
“I made some good inroads, but blew out my right hamstring the first day in Kenosha,” McNaul said. “So I came back from that and just kind of suffered chronic sublexing of my right shoulder throughout the remainder of the season.”
McNaul appeared on special teams in the final five games of the 2008 season and recorded two tackles. After the Alamo Bowl, he underwent reconstructive surgery to repair his right shoulder. That knocked him out of the 2009 spring practices, but he rehabbed diligently and earned some special-teams roles until…
“Had some dings and bruises -- a dislocated finger here and there -- and then in the Minnesota game (the Big Ten opener) I kind of blew out my knee,” McNaul said. “Actually, the ACL and all the tendons held on, which I think the doctors looked at me and their eyes were, like, wide-open. When I came in the next morning after they read the MRI, they were like, ‘You need to say a few prayers. Your knee held on, but we don’t know how.’ But I tore my calf and had a bone contusion in my knee that kept me out until Iowa.”
Had enough yet? There’s more.
“I came into Iowa (week) and I think I practiced a day before I got sicker than I ever got sick in my life,” McNaul said. “I had IVs and shots and I was in the hospital laid up.”
But McNaul was ready for the following week’s game against Illinois and made 2 tackles, so he earned his first career start in the regular-season finale against Wisconsin.
After some terrific play in spring ball as well as fall camp, McNaul earned the starting job at weak-side linebacker. Of course, he injured his shoulder and missed the first 2 games.
But in Northwestern's last 6 games, all starts, McNaul owns 25 solo tackles, 17 assists, 5 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble and 1 pass breakup. He leads NU in tackles per game, but only now feels comfortable on the field.
In the Daily Herald later this week, we’ll explain all of the people that have gotten McNaul through the injuries -- as well as the contents of the forwarded e-mail he received from Afghanistan after Saturday’s win over Indiana.