Marcus Childers didn't start the 2017 season as the Northern Illinois starting quarterback. He wasn't even second on the depth chart when the campaign began.
The Adairsville High Class of 2015 graduate sat in third following a three-way battle for the role of Huskies signal-caller during fall camp. Childers used the final depth chart as motivation to eventually ascend past Ryan Graham, who suffered an injury in the season-opener, and backup-turned-starter Daniel Santacaterina.
"It definitely sparked a fire in me to actually learn the stuff that I needed to and to make those decisions for me to be able to say, 'Hey, I want this job, so I'm going to go get it,'" Childers said. "When Ryan got hurt, it really opened an opportunity for me and Santa to kind of show the coaches and our guys who we are. When they finally gave me the opportunity, I seized it."
After playing sparingly during the nonconference portion of the season, Childers took virtually every snap during MAC play and the Huskies' bowl game against Duke.
On the season, he completed 54.7 percent of his passes for 1,674 yards and 16 touchdowns with five interceptions. The dual-threat quarterback also piled up 473 yards on the ground with five touchdowns.
His outstanding performance earned him the conference's Freshman of the Year honor, the first time an NIU player has won the award since NIU rejoined the MAC in 1997.
Following his successful season, which saw NIU finish 8-5, Childers is now firmly on top of the two-deep entering his redshirt sophomore year. Now that he's gone through several months as NIU's starter, Childers believes its time to take on more leadership responsibilities.
"It gives me the sense that I have to be the leader of this team," Childers said. "Everybody looks up to me, everybody looks at me to be that guy and to lead us. I really embrace that opportunity as a leader. From a football-stance, I look at it as, yeah, I won this job, but I still have got to keep this job. I have to continue working to get better every day. ...
"It makes you that much more hungry, because you know you have a lot of guys looking up to you to be that guy. It's a big opportunity and a big role to step into."
It's an impressive position for Childers to be in, especially considering where he was at when he arrived in DeKalb.
He initially planned to attend Memphis, grayshirting the 2015 season after graduating from Adairsville. But after Memphis head coach Justin Fuente left to take the same position at Virginia Tech, Childers enrolled at NIU and redshirted in 2016.
"Coming into college, I would say I was a little immature to the football-stance of it," Childers said. "I didn't really understand some of the things that football was all about and some of the things that you had to know to play this position at this high of a level. Continuing to mature is a big thing that I took part in, because if you're immature, you can't lead a football team. You have to be watching film every day, staying in the books and in the study room."
Even though it had been two and a half years since he had started a competitive game, Childers began immediately challenging for the Huskies' starting quarterback job in spring 2017. It took a lot for him to eventually get the position, but it has him in prime position to turn into a four-year starter.
"I didn't understand the offense fully," Childers said of his redshirt season. "I wasn't doing the right thing. I wasn't making good decisions, quick decisions.
"Spring going into last season, I kind of turned that corner. Things started clicking the way they're supposed to be. I started making decisions faster. ... The more I played last year, the easier it got and the faster I got to be able to play. Really all last season was a turning point for me."
"It's a constant learning curve," he added, "but I think last year was a big season for me to kind of get my feet underneath me and establish who I am as a player."
Childers, unsurprisingly, said his goal is to go 12-0 and win the conference. Given the team went 6-2 in the league with both losses by 10 or fewer points, NIU could legitimately challenge for the MAC title.
The biggest boost to the Huskies offense will come from familiarity. It's hard for any team to find a rhythm when three quarterbacks start across the first six games of the season.
NIU will return two of its top three wide receivers based on number of catches in 2017. Assuming Childers manages to hang onto the starting gig throughout 2018, his rapport with the receiving corps should pay huge dividends this season.
Continuing to build that connection with his pass-catchers — and really the entire offense — has been Childers' focus throughout the spring and summer, and he expects it to lead to a great year.
"It wasn't trying to come up with different things; it was just us trying to get better at the basics and what we were actually good at. That was kind of the spring [focus]," Childers said. "Now, I think we're in a good place with the whole team. We have a lot of young guys coming back who played a lot of snaps last year. We have a bunch of new guys coming in who I expect to play a lot of snaps.
"I think we're going to be really good and have an opportunity to win a lot of games. We're at the point where we need to be. We've got to keep moving forward, but we're definitely in the right place and the right direction."