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Columnist
NU running back Schmidt's gamble is paying off
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 9/26/2009 12:01 AM

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If the Hodag hadn't been invented more than a century ago in Rhinelander, Wis., then Northwestern running back Jacob Schmidt could serve as the mythical creature of the Northwoods.

What's a Hodag, you ask? Judging by the statue in front of the Rhinelander Chamber of Commerce, it's a massive, green, lizardlike creature with horns, claws and a spiked tail.

What's a Jacob Schmidt, you ask? Judging by the rosters of every Big Ten school, he's one of just three Caucasian tailbacks in the league that receives a scholarship for his efforts.

But while Iowa's Brandon Wegher and Purdue's Dan Dierking (the Wheaton Warrenville South graduate) were highly recruited and granted scholarships from the start, Schmidt beat considerable odds to earn his ride.

At 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds, Schmidt didn't even have any Div. II offers after earning 11 letters spread over four sports (football, basketball, baseball, hockey) for the Rhinelander High School Hodags.

Armed with a 30 ACT score and a nice highlight video, Schmidt cold-called Northwestern and kindled a relationship.

In the end, after visiting Princeton and Harvard and other schools, Schmidt opted to accept a walk-on spot from the Wildcats rather than settle for something less than the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

"I wanted the academics as well as the football," Schmidt said.

He set his initial goals high in the classroom ("pre-med and kind of go the engineering route"). As it turned out, his initial goals for football weren't high enough.

"It started as just contribute," Schmidt said. "I just wanted to be on that travel squad, I wanted to be on that bus and I wanted to contribute on the field."

Schmidt thought he planted the seed early on at his first Camp Kenosha, when he took advantage of an interior drill to run right through senior middle linebacker Adam Kadela (who went on to finish as the Big Ten's No. 3 tackler in 2007).

Schmidt played every game on special teams in 2008 as a redshirt freshman and hoped to be part of this year's derby to replace Tyrell Sutton, but he missed spring ball due to knee surgery and fell behind six scholarship running backs.

But injuries to four teammates, as well as Schmidt's blue-collar skill set, earned him a spot in the rotation.

"It's become kind of my role, my niche, to get the hard yards up the middle," Schmidt said. "I embrace it. I love it. I'm not a guy that's going to go side-to-side a lot and beat you with my quicks, but I'm going to lower my shoulders and do my best to run you over."

He plunged for his first touchdown in the opener against Towson, rushed 13 times for 61 yards against Eastern Michigan and produced 76 total yards last week at Syracuse in his first career start.

With starter Stephen Simmons out again this week with an ankle injury, Schmidt is listed as the first-stringer for today's Big Ten opener against Minnesota.

Oh, one other thing happened this fall. Fitzgerald put Schmidt on scholarship, which saves his middle-class parents, Ken and Kerri, approximately $52,000 per year.

"I want to say I was (happier), but I think my parents were," Schmidt said. "Now we have the opportunity to start paying off the loans that we took out the first two years."

Though a financial burden has been lifted from Schmidt's shoulders, the chip that's been there since Day 1 hasn't budged.

"You see it in the media, you see it in the blogs," Schmidt said. "Too slow."

And too white?

"I'll say it: White guy," Schmidt said. "If they think that, they think that. But I'm going to do my best to overcome it. I've achieved a lot of my goals, but a lot more to go. There's a lot of room to keep improving."