The Bears aren’t the only football team on display in our state today. If you want to see Northern Illinois scrimmage, get out to Huskie Stadium at 5 p.m. If you want to see Illinois’ big fall scrimmage, get to Rantoul High School by 6:30 p.m. Northwestern, meanwhile, heads to Camp Kenosha later today after an early workout.
Meanwhile, the rest of the college football world will continue to try to figure out when and where Texas A&M might be next year. Maybe this is fatalistic, but a Texas A&M move triggers the eventual development of four 16-team super-conferences.
It might take five years. It might take 10 years. But the conferences will shift and morph into these massive globs. How will that affect schools like Northern Illinois? It certainly won’t make access to the big time any easier.
The gap between the haves and have-nots grows wider each time one of the BCS conference signs a huge TV deal (or sets up its own network). Upsizing the conferences means upsizing the gap. If you didn’t know any better, you’d suggest college football is mirroring the rest of American life.
On the Wildcats’ official roster, Jack Konopka is listed as No. 63. But the freshman from Fremd has yet to don that lineman’s number. Superbacks coach Bob Heffner called him last Thursday and told him NU wanted to try him as a tight end.
Therefore, the 6-foot-5, 286-pound Konopka has worn No. 83 throughout camp and been the team’s biggest skill player. Senior Drake Dunsmore claimed, through the first three days, Konopka caught more passes than anybody at their position. “He can get out and run a little bit,” Dunsmore said.
According to Heffner, Konopka’s move isn’t a done deal. The Wildcats are short at the position. With Brett Nagel still wearing a red jersey and recovering from an offseason injury, NU has Dunsmore, redshirt sophomore John Plasencia, freshman Mark Szott (Waubonsie Valley) and Konopka at the position.
“We’re taking a good, hard look at him at that position,” Heffner said. “He’s going to be a very good football player for us somewhere. I don’t know (where) yet. All I know is he has learned and he has caught the ball when it was thrown to him.”
“No complaints. I’m loving it,” said Konopka, who spent the summer preparing as if he would play tackle. “Position is not really a huge thing for me. I came here for everything else Northwestern gives. Coaching staff. Coach Fitz. The academics. Everything. I came here for the bigger picture.”
While Konopka is more of a tight end in the traditional sense --- line up shoulder-to-shoulder with a tackle and blow open holes for a running back --- the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Szott is viewed as the next Dunsmore for his H-back capabilities. NU loves the fact that Waubonsie Valley used Szott the same way the Wildcats plan to use him.
Now the trick is getting up to speed with the more complicated college game.
“He’s running with the second group right now,” Heffner said. “For a freshman, sometimes it’s one of those things where you’re thrown into the fire. He has some really good plays and he has some plays where he’s looking back at me.”
Heffner considered Szott’s Thursday practice to be his best to date…which was important because Wednesday’s practice was a bit of a “mental explosion.”
“(Wednesday) I was overwhelmed,” Szott said. “I was swimming in information. I knew what was going on, but I was second-guessing myself and not sure what to do. I studied a lot (Wednesday) night, stuck my nose in the playbook, and (Thursday) I felt more confident with everything.”
During his senior year at Geneva, Michael Santacaterina earned Class 7A all-state recognition. He was voted the best offensive back in his conference, the MVP of his team and the honorary captain of the Daily Herald’s Kane County all-area squad.
That wasn’t good enough to earn a scholarship --- NIU brought him in on signing day as an invited walk-on --- but Santacaterina might turn out good enough to earn a scholarship soon. Though he was a running back and a safety for the Vikings, the redshirt freshman has developed into a solid option at “field” linebacker for the Huskies. He’s competing for reps with junior Victor Jacques and redshirt freshman Jamaal Bass there.
“Hard work’s paying off, I guess,” Santacaterina said. “Just gotta keep working.”
While Jacques and Bass are ahead of him on the depth chart, there are plenty of other goals available. The 6-foot, 215-pound Santacaterina wants to get on the field in any possible fashion. While he’d love to expand his empire if the coaches ask, he’s happy to be working with the kick coverage team for now.
“I really want to get on kickoff this year,” Santacaterina said. “I really love running down on kickoffs. That’s one of my favorite things.”
Fifth-year senior nose guard Craig Wilson checks in at 6-foot-5 and 320 pounds, which makes him the second-biggest scholarship player on the Illini roster. But there might not be anybody more flexible and acrobatic than the Thornton High School product.
Wilson can balance himself well enough to do a one-handed handstand. He can do the splits with ease. Senior offensive tackle Jeff Allen refers to Wilson as a freak due to all the ways he can bend.
I asked whether Wilson could put his legs behind his neck. “I’m not THAT flexible,” he said, “but I like to think of myself as a little bit of a bender.”
Wilson became a staunch believer in stretching as a youngster, but he reached freak status once he started doing yoga with other Illini offensive linemen. Former offensive coordinator Mike Locksley’s wife, Kia, is a yoga instructor who held classes for the players.
“It really helped our playing ability as far as getting our pads low and our stance and getting off the ball,” Wilson said.
Wilson never found a consistent home on the offensive line, but the coaches moved him to nose tackle prior to spring ball. Head coach Ron Zook said he wanted to make the move a few years earlier, but the offensive coaches talked him out of it.
Wilson needs to be a stalwart at nose tackle because the top backups are redshirt freshmen Jake Howe and Austin Teitsma and senior walk-on Wisdom Onyegbule.
“I feel good at the position,” Wilson said. “But there are still a lot of things I need to learn. Just certain plays need to get cleaned up as to what exactly I need to do. I know where to get to, but (it’s) what to do when I get there.”
And how does Wilson’s flexibility help at nose tackle?
“I’m bigger than a lot of people,” he said. “So the first thing they see about me is, ‘I’m going to attack his legs.’ That lets me know I have to get low every time. That’s the first thing that goes through my mind. The yoga helps me to get low, stay low and also be powerful with it, too.”