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Former walk-on Alex Schwab steps up as starting linebacker

Schwab: 'It couldn’t be a better ending to my senior year'

NIU linebacker Alex Schwab (18) and linebacker Jawuan Johnson (7) react after stopping a Western Michigan Broncos run at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb November 15.
NIU linebacker Alex Schwab (18) and linebacker Jawuan Johnson (7) react after stopping a Western Michigan Broncos run at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb November 15.

DeKALB – If you ask Alex Schwab what he’s thankful for this Thanksgiving, you’re probably going to end up with a long list. 

Schwab, a senior linebacker for Northern Illinois, walked-on at NIU in 2014 after playing as a true freshman at Football Championship Subdivision Southeast Missouri State. Since then, it’s been quite a journey. Schwab worked his way up the depth chart, he was eventually awarded a scholarship and most recently, earned a starter role in the Huskies’ linebacker rotation. 

“I’ve really gone through hell and back to get here,” Schwab said. “It’s an incredible feeling when I look back at everything.”

Schwab was a scholarship player at SEMO and played in 11 games as a true freshman, but he wasn’t happy. The New Berlin, Wisconsin native wanted to be closer to home, so he expressed his feelings to SEMO coach Tom Matukewicz, a former NIU linebackers coach (2001 to 2010). 

Matukewicz put Schwab in touch with NIU defensive coordinator Kevin Kane, who saw potential in Schwab and allowed him to walk on as a Huskie.

“Being a walk-on, it was a struggle,” Schwab recalled. “I felt like I always played with an added chip on my shoulder. Like I had something to prove.” 

Schwab’s approach eventually paid off. He redshirted his first year at NIU and began his sophomore season buried on special teams, before becoming a starter on the unit at the end of the year. 

His progression continued to ascend heading into his junior season in 2016. Schwab had a stellar fall camp and heard the words from NIU’s coaching staff that every walk-on player wants to hear: “You’re on scholarship.” 

But then came another bump in the road. NIU didn’t have enough scholarships to give out, so he had to wait just a little bit longer to be added on.

“Kane mentioned I would earn scholarship at the end of fall camp junior year … He said I did really well," Schwab said. "But then they ended up putting (offensive lineman) Luke Shively on, so they didn’t have room for me. But it was understandable, Luke Shively is a starter. It was a struggle getting here. I’m happy with how everything played out.”

Schwab’s time finally came after last season, when he signed his scholarship papers in January effective for the spring semester. It was one of the happiest moments of Schwab’s life. He had his best friend, former NIU linebacker Cody Sullivan, visit DeKalb to celebrate his scholarship. 

When Schwab was honored on senior night last week with his family and friends, he noticed a change of scenery. The other 30-plus walk-ons who were part of Schwab’s original class are no longer on the team. 

“I stepped back and realized how far I’ve come,” Schwab said. “A lot of walk-ons have been suckled out, there’s probably more than 30 in my class who aren’t here anymore that I can think of.”

Even after he was awarded a scholarship, Scwhab still had to grind. 

Schwab was part of NIU’s rotation last season, but wasn't starting consistantly. earned a starting role this year after sophomore Kyle Pugh suffered a season-ending injury at the end of September. Schwab has played in all of NIU's 11 games this season, along with five starts.

“There’s so much talent around me,” he said. “We have really good players I’m sort of in the shadow with. I knew I was going to take advantage of it and I think I’ve done a pretty good job. That linebacker room is really talented.”

NIU safety Mykelti Williams said Schwab has been a leader for the Huskies’ defense. Schwab ranks fifth on the team in total tackles with a career-high 42.

“He’s done a phenomenal job of communicating,” Williams said of Schwab. “He brings his hard had everyday … We feed off of him.”

As the Huskies prepare for NIU’s final game of the regular season against Central Michigan Friday with a chance to win at least a share of the Mid-American Conference West title, Schwab is grateful to be part of one of the country’s top defenses.

“Hopefully things happen with the other team so we go to Detroit,” Schwab said. “But if not we have an opportunity to be a 10-3 team which hasn’t happened in a while – or at least while I’ve been here.”

The former walk-on has experienced plenty throughout his NIU career, but Schwab is hoping one more thing falls in the Huskies’ favor. 

He said, “It couldn’t be a better ending to my senior year … It’s not the full part of the cake that we want, but we’ll take what we can get.”

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