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Brinlee’s route from Lake Zurich to NIU not a straight line

Former Lake Zurich standout Jacob Brinlee will play for Northern Illinois BCS Orange Bowl Miami Jan. 1. | Phocourtesy Scott

Former Lake Zurich standout Jacob Brinlee will play for Northern Illinois in the BCS Orange Bowl in Miami on Jan. 1. | Photo courtesy Scott Walstrom/NIU Media Services

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No. 11 — Starting senior cornerback Rashaan Melvin is a graduate of Waukegan High School. He has 1 pick this season and 17 passes defended.

No. 91 — Starting junior defensive tackle Anthony Wells is a graduate of North Chicago High School. He has 4 sacks this season, 8 tackles for loss and 1 fumble recovery.

No. 86 — Reserved wideout Jacob Brinlee is a graduate of Lake Zurich High School. He’s caught 2 passes this season and also rushed 3 times for 31 total yards.

Updated: March 2, 2013 2:35AM

The road to the Northern Illinois football team — and the Jan. 1 BCS Orange Bowl — has been a long and winding one for Jacob Brinlee.

A speedy, shifty star running back at Lake Zurich, Brinlee led the Bears into the Class 7A state title game as a senior in 2010. He still holds school records for career rushing yards (3,490) and touchdowns (38).

“He holds a lot of our records,” said Lake Zurich offensive coordinator Aaron Towne, who coached Brinlee in football and track. “A special individual.”

But high school glory did not equal college interest for Brinlee. Undersized for a running back at 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, Brinlee was ignored by most top colleges when he graduated in 2011.

“I didn’t know how it worked. I just assumed that (if) you do well, you’ll get recruited,” Brinlee said. “There’s a lot to it.”

He knew he wanted to play college football, but he had to find a place that wanted him. Acting on a recommendation from former Lake Zurich star — and current Indianapolis Colts offensive lineman — Anthony Castonzo, Brinlee enrolled in Fork Union Military Academy, a postgraduate school in Fork Union, Va.

Castonzo had attended the school — which features an insular, regimented culture that includes 5:45 a.m. wake-up calls, mandatory marches and spot inspections — before moving on to play football at Boston College.

“No cell phones. No iPads. Don’t bring your TV. Just concentrate on grinding it out academically,” Fork Union coach John Shuman said of the academy’s atmosphere. “Guys immerse themselves and see where it takes them.”

In his one year at Fork Union, Brinlee excelled on offense, defense and punt returns. He came home after the 2011 season to weigh his post-preparatory school options.

“It’s kind of how the system works,” Brinlee said. “If you have your grades, you get out of there.”

Brinlee wanted to major in engineering, and he had two football offers: one from Division II Ashland University and a walk-on offer from Eastern Carolina. He wasn’t interested in either, so he took the advice of another former Bear — running back Kyle Skarb, who played at Northern Illinois — and cold-called the Huskies.

Then-assistant Rod Carey, who was named Northern Illinois’ head coach this month after Dave Doeren left to coach North Carolina State, answered Brinlee’s call.

“He was surprised, a little taken aback. He didn’t know who I was,” Brinlee said. “It’s not traditionally how it works.”

Added Towne: “I told (Carey), ‘He is going to force you to play him. He will do whatever it takes to get on the field.’ ”

Now a slot receiver in the Huskies’ spread option attack, Brinlee is a much-thicker 185 pounds. He’s able to absorb hits from Division I linebackers, but he hasn’t lost that sprinter’s speed. As a freshman this fall, Brinlee played in eight games, scoring a touchdown against Eastern Michigan in the team’s final regular season game on Nov. 23.

The play was a jet sweep, which Lake Zurich fans would recognize. Brinlee ran it hundreds of times with the Bears.

“It was stuff we did in high school. An 11-yard run,” Brinlee said. “It was cool, at the end of the game. It had been awhile.”

Yes it had. Many of the Huskies who are preparing to become the first players from a Mid-American Conference team to play in a BCS bowl game have unique stories about how they got to Northern Illinois.

Brinlee has one of the best.

“I learned a lot this year. All the hard work, all the people I’ve met, has stuck with me,” Brinlee said. “I have a lot ahead of me. This is the right place.”

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