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NU coach Pat Fitzgerald puts faith in RB Jacob Schmidt

Running back Jacob Schmidt was third rushing yards for Northwestern last seaswith 196. | John Smierciak~AP

Running back Jacob Schmidt was third in rushing yards for Northwestern last season with 196. | John Smierciak~AP

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Updated: November 4, 2011 10:33AM

Jacob Schmidt was a walk-on five years ago when he enrolled at Northwestern.

Now the native of Rhinelander, Wis., is the one to beat in the Wildcats’ backfield.

Throwing down the gauntlet to younger running backs Mike Trumpy, Tyris Jones and Adonis Smith, Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald has all but declared Schmidt as the No. 1 back on the depth chart. NU opens the season Sept. 3 at Boston College, and the game-day depth chart will be released Monday.

“Obviously, it made me feel good,” Schmidt said. “It was kind of a ­reward for all the hard work I did in the offseason to get back. And my goal was to get back in the fall and get back to where I was, playing strong and being consistent. I pride myself on doing things right.”

It feels like vindication for Schmidt after he tore ligaments in his right ankle on Oct. 23, 2010, in a 35-27 loss to Michigan State at Ryan Field. Schmidt took a handoff from quarterback Dan Persa near the goal line when he was stopped by the Spartans’ line. Before he knew it, Schmidt was looking up from the bottom of the pile with defensive linemen rolling over his ankle.

Schmidt didn’t play again until the TicketCity Bowl on Jan. 1, catching one pass for seven yards. He finished the season with 161 yards rushing and four touchdowns in eight games. Schmidt had surgery in January and missed spring practice in March and April.

Now Schmidt is 100 percent and his old consistent self.

“It feels really, really good,” Schmidt said. “I came out of the spring with it pretty much healed up, and I came out at 100 percent in early summer.”

Schmidt will lead a running back corps that Persa challenged during training camp. Persa was the team’s second-leading rusher (519 yards) behind Trumpy (530) last season. Smith was third with 196 yards.

“Everybody wants to be the
No. 1 running back,” Jones said. “Every time we step on the field, we know it’s going to be a competition. For me, I just want to be on the field and play. Being as big as I am [6-0, 220 pounds] in a spread offense, I’m not the likely candidate.”

The backfield crew seems to have more depth than the running-back- by-committee of 2010.

Arby Fields and Schmidt started the season as the two main backs, but Fields’ production dropped off after the second game against Illinois State. Trumpy broke out the next week against Central Michigan and was consistent until he broke his right wrist against Illinois. Fields left NU in December and transferred to LSU, where he will play baseball.

By declaring Schmidt as the running back to beat, Fitzgerald seems to be sending a message to the other backs. After the Wildcats’ scrimmage Aug. 20 in Kenosha, he was less than happy with Trumpy and Smith.

“It’s about showing up with your lunch pail every day and executing everything and not [just] when the ball is in your hands,” Fitzgerald said. “Those two young guys have got to grow up, and if they do, they are talented enough to be big players for our offense. My size-12 [shoe] is where the sun doesn’t shine on those guys, and hopefully they will step up.”

But then Fitzgerald stressed — to Wildcats fans in particular — that just because he said Schmidt was The Man, it isn’t necessarily set in stone for the opener.

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