DeKALB – Brandon Bice knew Pat Schiller could play, even if Schiller himself didn’t know where he was headed.
When Schiller first came to Northern Illinois as a freshman from Geneva, he wanted to make an impact any way he could. That meant effort and hustle plays from the middle linebacker position. Learning the playbook comes with time – Schiller wanted to show how hard he could hit people from the start.
Bice, a defensive end now entering his senior year, took immediate notice when he found Schiller up on the line with him on most plays.
“When he first came in as a freshman, he would not know what play to run or where he was supposed to go on that play,” Bice said. “So he would just take the A or B gap and run through it. And he would knock guards over and just blow them up.
“I was like, ‘Who is this guy?’”
Schiller indeed made an impact with that tactic, enough to earn himself a nickname: “A-gap.”
“I knew I was probably going to redshirt but I just wanted to let the coaches know that I have a motor and that I could play,” Schiller said. “[On] running plays I would just hit any pulling guards or tackles as hard as I could. I definitely made a name for myself.”
In time, though, Schiller learned where to go and his knowledge on how to play the position increased enough that he’s locked in as the starting middle linebacker this season for the Huskies as a redshirt sophomore.
Even with a starting spot assured for the season-opener Sept. 5 at Wisconsin, Schiller still feels like he has room for improvement, especially when working in conjunction with the rest of the defense.
“I definitely learn new things every single day,” he said. “I’m not comfortable. I’m comfortable at my spot but I’ve never settled for what I’m doing. It’s about not making the same mistake twice. I’ve got to get that in my head.”
Even while Schiller still learns some of the mental aspects of the position, it’s his physical attributes that have NIU coaches excited for the season.
If Schiller’s offseason work is any indication, they have every reason for that excitement.
Schiller spent time this summer working with his personal trainer, former NFL wide receiver Kevin Kasper, at Kasper’s Xtreme Speed training center.
Schiller has done it since high school and has worked out with such players as former Notre Dame stars Tom Zbikowski and Jeff Samardzija along with current Notre Dame linebacker Pat Hughes and Indiana linebacker Matt Mayberry.
“[Kasper has] been a big mentor for me as far as what to do and how to do it,” Schiller said.
NIU linebackers coach Tom Matukewicz says Schiller has a better reaction time this season, and Schiller’s work in the offseason is proof of that.
“He’s one of the quickest reactors you’ve ever seen,” Matukewicz said. “Like all of a sudden one of the blockers shows up and the ball’s right here and you’ve got two-tenths of a second and he knows where to go. That’s his best attribute.”
In the meantime, Schiller works on avoiding the mental mistakes that allow his teammates to razz him with “A-gap” calls. It’s something he learned last season when he notched 24 tackles and an interception subbing for the now-graduated Tim McCarthy.
“There’s nothing like getting game experience,” Schiller said. “It just makes me more comfortable knowing that I’ve had the experience. But you’ve got to fail in order to succeed.”
If he can succeed with increased experience, a defense that appears stout at linebacker looks even tougher to move the ball on this season.
“His football IQ needs to continue to go, understanding coverages, understanding blitzes, understanding fronts, kind of what all 10 other guys are doing,” Matukewicz said. “But as far as playing linebacker, he plays it well”