wildcats Northwestern gears up for Big Ten Redbirds

The Northwestern Wildcats might see some familiar faces Saturday when they host Illinois State in their home opener.

“They got Big Ten talent,” NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald said after practice Wednesday. “They got (nine) Big Ten players on their team.”

What Coach Fitz is referring to are the nine Illinois State players that are transfers from other Big Ten schools. Indeed, the Redbirds have become a Football Championship Subdivision hotbed for Big Ten cast-offs over the last few seasons. This year, nine former Big Ten players are on ISU’s roster and five of those players can be found on this week’s two-deep.

Four of those players (Shelby Harris, Erik Smith, Otis Merrill and Leonhard Hubbard) transferred from Wisconsin; two others (Bo Flowers and Adam Rebholz) are from Illinois; and EJ Jones, Ashton Leggett and Milton Owens are all former players at Minnesota, Michigan State and Indiana, respectively.

“I don’t know what it would be like to get (nine) Big Ten transfers at Northwestern. I mean, (ISU head coach Brock Spack), that’s a pretty good deal for him,” Fitzgerald said.

Now, the reality of the situation is that all nine of these players are at Illinois State because they weren’t in the immediate plans at their respective Big Ten schools or because they got into trouble and were forced to leave. They came to Illinois State because they could get more playing time at a non-Football Bowl Subdivision school. But a number of these guys are legitimate players.

Take Erik Smith, who will start at running back Saturday, for example. He was behind a number of good running backs at Wisconsin, but still managed to get 16 carries for 69 yards and a touchdown for the Badgers last season. That’s no small feat in a backfield that is now redshirting senior Zach Brown – who has been a steady contributor for three years – because it has too much depth. No wonder Smith transferred to Illinois State.

Shelby Harris is also a talented defensive end who might have seen playing time at Wisconsin this year had he not been removed from the program for violating team rules. Instead, he started for the Redbirds last week and still sits atop the depth chart his position.

EJ Jones actually started at Minnesota as a true freshman. Now he is ISU’s starting cornerback.

You get the picture.

No one is saying these guys will be enough for an FCS school to come into Ryan Field Saturday and beat the Wildcats. But you know that all nine Big Ten transfers would love the opportunity to prove they can succeed against a Big Ten school.

So keep your eye on Smith, Harris, Jones and any other former Big Ten player who gets in for the Redbirds Saturday. They might just make a difference, even for just one play.

Watch & Listen LIVE