DeKALB – Mario Jones has been playing football since he was in third grade.
Last season, Jones, a redshirt-freshman defensive tackle out of Hubbard High School in Chicago, faced a challenge most Division I freshmen have to deal with when they arrive on campus.
After spending four years as a varsity player at Hubbard, Jones redshirted his freshman season. He worked on the scout team during the week, and spent his Saturday afternoons at Huskie Stadium on the sideline, not wearing any pads.
When the Huskies were on the road, redshirts like Jones weren't with the team.
Jones found out he wasn't going to get on the field in 2012 late in fall camp, but wasn't upset about the decision.
"It was kind of up in the air," he said. "There was a lot of great athletes on the team. I didn't mind if I played or not, I just knew I was going to get better either way."
Matt Williams had a slightly different redshirting experience this past year. Williams traveled with the team as its emergency third quarterback, signaling in plays to Jordan Lynch and learning as much as he could from the player who finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy balloting last year.
Not getting on the field is a reality most freshmen face. NIU had 27 freshmen redshirt last season, while six true freshmen – receiver Jacob Brinlee, running back Keith Harris Jr., tight end Desroy Maxwell, linebacker Mike Cotton, cornerback Marlon Moore and Perez Ford, who is making the switch from running back to defensive end this spring – got playing time without taking a redshirt season.
Williams said that while going through a season without seeing the field is hard at times, in the end, everyone is playing their own role.
"At times it gets tough because you want to go out there and contribute to your team. You're contributing by redshriting and doing your part," Wiliams said. "Everybody has a part and everybody plays their role, everybody pays their dues.
"You're redshirting, getting in the weight room, getting heavier, doing all that stuff. Get in there do your role, help out the team any way you can"
This spring, Williams is looking to earn the backup quarterback spot. Sophomore Matt McIntosh is listed behind Jordan Lynch on the depth chart.
"[Bob] Cole came to us at the beginning of spring ball and said the No. 2 spot's open. Obviously, I want to be the next guy here, do everything I can," Williams said. "McIntosh and Drew (Hare) are great quarterbacks, too. Just got to do your part and help out. Wherever you end up, just have to do your part."
Williams said he's put on 10 pounds since he's been on campus, and used the 2012 campaign as an opportunity to take mental reps by watching and learning from Lynch.
Redshirt-freshman tackle Josh Ruka said spending 2012 on the scout team helped him pick up little things like technique, and said his redshirt year was a great opportunity to get used to the system.
Getting through a season without getting any playing time isn't easy for guys who never really had to worry about a lack of playing time before college, but players like Ruka and Jones say they ultimately benefit from using a redshirt year, knowing they probably will be better off as a fifth-year player.
"I just wanted to come in doing my best, and then if I redshirted, I pretty much thought that the redshirt year would give me the chance to master some techniques," Jones said.
Last season, the redshirts also got a special reward at the end of the year, spending a week in South Florida during Orange Bowl preparation. Redshirts don't travel to regular road games, but with the scout team neeeded in bowl practice, everyone got the opportunity to head to the Miami area.
Not a bad first road trip.
"That was the coolest thing I've ever been to," Ruka said. "Just the experience was awesome."