St. John's Jesuit graduate Ben Burkett lines up at center for Northwestern University. Burkett missed his freshman year with an injury, but is a central part of the team's 6-1 start this year.
NOT BLADE PHOTO / S. J. Carrera, Inc. Enlarge
Perrysburg resident Ben Burkett had to overcome some early bumps on the road to realizing his dreams of playing college football in the Big Ten, but the precarious path has quickly smoothed out.
Burkett has taken over as the starting center for Northwestern University and has been an integral part of the Wildcats' historic start this season.
The 2007 St. John's Jesuit High School graduate landed the scholarship to the major Division I school in December, 2006. But he incurred a torn shoulder muscle just before his freshman season and was redshirted.
Yet the 6-foot-4, 285-pound offensive lineman battled back and has helped lead Northwestern to its best start since 1962 as the Wildcats jumped out to a 5-0 start and currently stand at 6-1.
"At St. John's, I got nicked up and banged up a little bit. But I'd never had to deal with an injury that required surgery," he said. "It required six months of rehab. But I felt good in the spring and I kept working at it over the summer.
"You have to earn your spot. You battle it out."
Burkett was able to win the starting center position in August, but then faced his next big challenge. He joined an extremely young offensive line with four other players who did not play a single snap last season.
He said the media and fans thought the offensive line may be the Wildcats' weakest area this season.
"The big focus in the preseason was on the offensive line. People have been questioning it," Burkett said. "We went into the season-opener with the idea that we had something to prove. We had a chip on our shoulder."
The Wildcats opened with Syracuse at home on Aug. 30 and blasted the Orange 30-10. Burkett and his fellow offensive linemen earned the team's offensive player of the game award.
"We did a good job of running the ball that day," he said.
The big win jump-started a run which saw Northwestern get off to its best start in 46 years.
"Looking back at the history here and the players that have played here makes it pretty special to be a part of this group that started 5-0," Burkett said. "There have been a lot of good players that have gone through here, especially linemen."
Burkett has taken full advantage of his chance to block for two of the best skill position players in the Big Ten Conference.
Fifth-year senior quarterback C.J. Bachr has surpassed the 6,000 mark for career passing yards. Through seven games, Bachr has a total of 1,735 total offensive yards (249.8 per game), which is tied for second in the Big Ten.
Bachr also ranks third on Northwestern's all-time list for passing yardage (6,464).
But Burkett said the stat that he is most proud of is the fact that Northwestern leads the Big Ten in fewest sacks allowed. The line has yielded just five sacks this season (0.7 per game).
"It feels good that we've only allowed a few sacks," Burkett said. "We work hard on pass protecting. We put special emphasis on that. One main goal was to limit sacks."
Senior running back Tyrell Sutton likely will end his career as the Wildcats' all-time leader in all-purpose yardage. Sutton has 699 rushing yards and is on pace for his third straight 1,000-yard campaign. He is just 83 yards shy of passing Damien Anderson on the program's all-purpose yardage list.
"He is a special guy. Tyrell is a heck of a running back," Burkett said. "One of the most gratifying things to see as an offensive lineman is to see a running back that gets a lot of yards and scores a lot of TDs. To me that is very rewarding."
At St. John's, Burkett was a two-way lineman and was twice named to both the All-Blade team and the all-district first team in Division I. As a senior he was an All-Ohio first-team selection and was also named the district's lineman of the year.
During his high school career, he started at center, guard, and tackle on offense, and at tackle on defense.
Burkett said he was recruited by several Mid-American Conference schools, including Toledo, Akron, Miami, and Ball State. He also received an offer from Cincinnati.
Northwestern offered him a scholarship during the summer prior to his senior season at St. John's. He made an official visit and committed in December of his senior year. It was the only school he visited.
"The one thing that stood out the most was the people on the team," he said. "I interacted well with the guys. I came here because of my teammates."
He also said the appeal of playing major Division I football was a big draw. No other Big Ten schools had recruited him.
"Obviously at Northwestern you get to play Big Ten football," he said. "And they have good academics, too. It was a pretty good opportunity."
In fall camp prior to the 2007 season, Burkett was a true freshman attempting to crack a veteran offensive line. But he injured his shoulder during practice.
"I hurt my left shoulder while we were doing drills," Burkett said. "I hit it the wrong way. It came out of the socket."
Burkett needed surgery to repair the damage.
He said that three of the four linemen were fifth-year seniors and it would have been tough for him to play as a true freshman.
"My chances of playing weren't very high. It was more anger than disappointment," he said.
For more than a month, Burkett could do no physical activity. He then began rehabbing the shoulder four times a week. He and the medical staff worked on his flexibility, strength, and rotation.
"By winter I was able to run and work out," he said.
Burkett was back on the field last spring for drills.
"The first couple of practices I was kind of tentative," he said. "The last thing I wanted to do was reinjure it."
It was then that he saw his opportunity to start improve greatly. The team lost three seniors to graduation and needed to replace the entire left side of the line.
Coaching staff members told Burkett they wanted him to play center. He had played the position at St. John's, where the Titans ran a similar offense.
"We ran some of the spread and the shotgun at St. John's. And the way we run the ball here is a lot like we did there," he said.
Burkett said the transition to Division I college football was startling.
"It's a completely different level," he said. "The game is more physical and faster."
He also said at Northwestern the coaches believe in practicing at the same tempo as they do in games.
"We practice fast. We run the type of offense where we have a fast tempo," he said. "Jumping right in was a big eye-opener."
After the season-opening win over Syracuse, the Wildcats beat Duke (24-20), Southern Illinois (33-7), Ohio (16-8), and Iowa (22-17).
Burkett said the comeback win at Iowa was exceptional.
"Going into Iowa, [the fans] did not give us a warm welcome," he said. "But that was not unexpected. We were down going in at half. But we scored right away in the second half and proved we can score anytime. When we put it out of reach, it was a little strange because the crowd was silent. It's weird playing football when everyone is quiet."
Then Northwestern suffered its first loss, 37-20, to Michigan State. But the team bounced back to beat Purdue, 48-26.
The last three times a Northwestern team started with a 5-1 record (2000, 1996, and 1995), it ended up winning the Big Ten championship.
"First of all, the goal is to win the Big Ten title," Burkett said. "Every week we're striving to get better."
Northwestern is ranked No. 22 in the first Bowl Championship Series poll, which was released Sunday.
In the press conference following the Michigan State loss, Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald had praise for Burkett and his fellow offensive linemen.
"The play of our offensive line, when we throw it 61 times and to only be sacked one time, shows real progress up there," Fitzgerald said.
Football a family thing
Burkett, born and raised in Indianapolis before moving to the Toledo area when he was in the fifth grade, said he dreamed of playing football for Purdue University.
His father, Jim, grew up in Maumee and played football for the Panthers.
"Football is a family thing for us," Burkett said. "Growing up, we'd play catch in the backyard every day. He coached my grade-school team.
"I appreciate everything that he and my mom [Susan] have done for me."
Burkett said many friends and family members travel to watch him play at Northwestern.
"They sometimes number up in the 20s," he said. "They wear my jersey number and they're very loud. It's a good time."
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