This was especially true for an NU team that lost several key players heading into this season. With uncertainty in many areas, and several starting positions in limbo before week one, surprise catalysts emerged in this excellent season.
Because NU now boasts a dynamic quarterback (Kain Colter), an offensive star (Mark) and a powerful trio of starting linebackers, some key players were lost in the discussion. This list of underappreciated players on Northwestern focuses on players who helped fill holes, and whose impact was not always reflected on the stat sheet.
Jack Konopka, offensive line
Offensive line coach Adam Cushing faced a difficult task. After several anemic performances from the running back position in 2011, NU needed to establish offensive balance. The team returned trusted veterans Brian Mulroe and Patrick Ward, as well as accomplished sophomore center Brandon Vitabile. Still, Cushing was forced to replace Al Netter and Ben Burkett. In fact, heading into 2011, NU had the second most experienced offensive line in the country, but that did not translate to success from the running back spot.
A superback his freshman year, Konopka moved to offensive line in spring and embraced the role. Much of the credit for the resurgent run game went to the veterans, and rightfully so, though Konopka's steady improvement helped ease this unit's transition. He struggled at times – especially at Minnesota – but the offensive line graded out surprisingly well.
"There were a couple of plays when I did look like a first-year starter," Konopka told me the week after the Nebraska game. "If I could play a more consistent game, I'd be a lot better off."
This is true. It was an imperfect season. However, in a year when question surrounded the o-line, it was imperative for a new face to step up to the task. Just a sophomore, Konopka showed promise, and earned some recognition.
Christian Jones, wide receiver
It's simple: I like his game. In a down year for the NU passing attack, Jones consistently impressed – both as a blocker and receiver. NU threw only 37.5 percent of the time, yet the unselfish group of receivers gained a reputation for solid downfield blocking. Jones, listed at 6-3, 225, had the requisite size to succeed in that area. Not only that, he improved as a receiver, delivering some memorable games.
Jones led the team with 373 yards, which is strange considering four NU receivers exceeded that mark in 2011. Don't be fooled, though. With more targets, Jones could be a legit No. 1 receiver. He flashed his speed with a 47-yard touchdown against Iowa. He earned a spot on the prestigious Leadership Council. With young guys Pierre Youngblood-Ary and Cameron Dickerson expected to take on expanded roles in 2013, this passing game will have additional weapons.
Also, against a formidable Mississippi State secondary, he has a chance to make a statement on New Year's Day. The passing game hardly took flight, but in spite of that, Jones managed to play well.
Jared Carpenter, safety
After Syracuse, the coaching staff decided that Carpenter would replace Davion Fleming in the starting lineup. The team appeared confident in the fifth-year senior, capable of infusing a young secondary with leadership. In his first several starts, though, he was just the guy next to Campbell.
The results did not show immediately. He occasionally seemed a step behind, adjusting to consistent playing time. Then, beginning in Ann Arbor, he showcased newfound intensity and big-play ability. He made a hustle play to force a fumble at Michigan, and the next week, he had his breakout performance.
At East Lansing, with the Cats desperate to rebound from the Michigan heartbreaker, Carpenter was one of the best players on the field. He had nine tackles, an interception and two pass deflections. With Andrew Maxwell attempting to lead the Spartans to a late scoring drive, Carpenter made a season-defining play. Maxwell appeared to complete a pass to Dion Sims over the middle, but Carpenter – after several tries – pried the ball free to force the game-sealing incompletion.
His play in the second half of the season took the burden off of Campbell's shoulders. Carpenter provided a surprising defensive lift in late-season games – a positive end to his career.
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