Patience paying off for walk-on Spencer


RS Junior RB James Spencer makes a run outside against Akron.

By Frank Gogola

Redshirt junior runningback James Spencer has waited more than three years to see regular play for the football team.

Spencer will see many more carries going forward, as he is listed as the second running back on the two-deep depth chart. He was promoted on the depth chart because Keith Harris Jr., the normal second-string runningback this season, suffered an ankle injury in the first half of a game against Kent State on Oct. 5 and had season-ending surgery on his ankle Tuesday.

With Harris on the shelf for the rest of the season, Spencer, a walk-on, will see an increase in his workload.

Originally, Spencer received no scholarships coming out of high school, but he did receiver walk-on offers. He said he considered other schools but after visiting NIU and figuring out his dad, who lives in Chicago, would be only 45 minutes away, he chose NIU.

“It requires a lot of patience, more than anything,” Spencer said. “As a walk-on you always have a chip on your shoulder because you weren’t offered a scholarship coming out of high school. Really, I’d rather be a walk-on than anything else because I believe that out of everybody, walk-ons work the hardest.”

Spencer redshirted his freshman season. As a redshirt freshman he saw action in six games on special teams and at running back, where he had two rushes for 7 yards. Last season he played in six games on special teams and at running back, recording two rushes for 30 yards. He’s continued to progress.

“I think he’s a real sound running back,” said head coach Rod Carey. “He has good vision, pretty good speed and good wiggle. He’s a kid who’s not afraid of contact, I can tell you that. He throws it up in there, so he’s a real solid running back…There is no substitute for playing in a game. None. You can do it in practice all you want, but until you do it when the lights are on you, that’s different.”

Now, Spencer has already seen action in three games. He has 13 rushes for 73 yards and one touchdown, and two receptions for 18 yards and one touchdown. While the majority of his touches came in the Kent State game, he contributes in other ways, too.

“I don’t know if there’s anything James can’t do,” said running backs coach Kelton Copeland. “He catches the ball well. He has really good ball skills. He’s obviously fast; he might be the fastest running back on the team…I don’t know that for a fact, but he looks like it on film.

“There’s a lot of things he can do. He has a lot of wiggle. He’s very hard to tackle. He blocks very well. He might be one of the better blockers as well; him being a smaller guy you wouldn’t think he’d be that, but he can block as well.

“Anybody who’s watched us play knows we ask a lot of our running backs: Go out and be a receiver, catch balls, block out on the perimeter, run the ball, obviously, and then block in pass pro. And he can do it all.”

With Harris out for the season and the availability of senior running back Akeem Daniels still unknown, Spencer is ready for the increased workload.

“It [being listed on the depth chart] shows that patience pays off,” Spencer said. “Unfortunately, we had some injuries, but you just have to be ready for them. And I’m definitely prepared to step up.”