Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish has been named the winner of the Mid-American Conference’s Vern Smith Leadership Award, which is presented annually to the MAC’s top football player, the league office announced Wednesday.
Mid-American Conference head coaches voted on the award and on the league’s all-conference team, which features nine Huskies in all, four on the first team.
Harnish is the sixth Northern Illinois player to win the Vern Smith Leadership Award and joins Tim Tyrrell, who earned the award following the Huskies’ MAC Championship season in 1983, as the only NIU quarterbacks to be named Vern Smith winners.
A Northern Illinois player has claimed the award in five of the last six years.
That list begins with Garrett Wolfe, who became the first Northern Illinois player since Tyrrell to win the award when he claimed the trophy in 2006. Defensive end Larry English won back-to-back league “MVP” trophies in 2007 and 2008, while Huskie tailback Chad Spann was the coaches’ selection a year ago.
Behind the passing and running prowess of Harnish, Northern Illinois has won seven straight games in league play to earn its second consecutive trip to Detroit for the Mid-American Conference Championship game.
Northern Illinois is 9-3 overall, 7-1 in MAC play this season and NIU is 19-5 with Harnish under center in the last two seasons.
This year, the Bluffton, Ind. native ranks 15th in the country and third in the MAC in rushing yards per game with 112.6 and averages 7.9 yards per carry with 1,351 yards on 172 runs.
Harnish also ranks 15th in the country in passing efficiency with a 154.36 mark as he is completing 63 percent (203-of-322) of his passes for 2,692 yards with 23 touchdowns and four interceptions.
He has accounted for 34 total touchdowns in 2011 with 23 passing and 11 rushing, and his rushing yardage total ranks fourth among the list of 10 players that have passed for 2,000 yards and run for 1,000 in a single season all-time. He has run for 100 or more yards in each of the Huskies’ last four games and six times overall with a career best of 229 yards on the ground versus Western Michigan (Oct. 15).
A four-year starter, Harnish has totaled 2,955 career rushing yards and 8,420 career passing yards and needs only 45 rushing yards to become only the third quarterback in FBS history to rush for 3,000 yards and pass for 8,000 yards in a career.
In addition to being honored as the MAC’s top football player, Harnish was named the league’s Offensive Player of the Year, and earned a spot on the first team all-conference squad for the second straight season.
“This award is a pure testament to my offensive linemen, the receivers, the running backs, tight ends and [NIU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks] Coach Canada,” Harnish said. “They have done a great job of supporting me and putting me in position to make plays. I have to admit that Coach Canada and I didn’t always see eye to eye in the beginning, but we’ve become much closer here lately and he has really taken my game to another level. I am so blessed to have he and [NIU Head] Coach [Dave] Doeren in my life. They are two special people that have had a huge impact on me.
“I’m still having trouble processing [the fact that I won]. I am so proud that an NIU player has won this award in five of the last six years, and to be to recognized with them, and be the first Huskie quarterback since Tim Tyrrell to win this award, is an awesome feeling.”
Harnish, who earned his undergraduate degree last May and is working on his master’s degree in business administration, travels to New York City next week to be honored as part of the 2011 National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete class.
“Obviously I think Chandler is very deserving of this award,” said NIU head coach Dave Doeren. “His body of work stands apart as far as what he has done for our team on and off the field. Out of all the teams I’ve been on, to have a guy that has done as much for his football team on and off the field is very special.”
The Huskies placed three players on the first team All-MAC offense with senior center Scott Wedige (Elkhorn, Wis./Elkhorn Area HS) and senior left tackle Trevor Olson (Richfield, Minn./Richfield HS) named first team all-league for the second consecutive season.
Olson, who has started 52 consecutive games for Northern Illinois over the last four seasons, has not given up a sack this season, while Wedige is responsible for putting the line in the proper protections for each play.
They were a large part of the Huskie offensive line that led NIU to rank eighth in the country in rushing, ninth in total offense and fourth in fewest sacks allowed.
“Scott has had a tremendous season in the middle for us,” Doeren said. “He calls everything up front. He has been banged up and fought his way through it. He has shown so much dedication to our team.
“What can you say about Trevor? He’s made 52 starts here. He is the ultimate team guy, a great leader and a dedicated Huskie. If you are a tackle and you don’t give up a sack the entire season, I think that says a lot about what you are doing.”
Kicker Mathew Sims was the fourth Huskie to earn first team honors. The sophomore from Hannibal, Mo. has made 18-of-23 field goals and 57-of-58 PATs to lead Northern Illinois in scoring with a school-record 111 points. He is the first Huskie kicker to earn first team All-MAC honors since Steve Azar in 2003.
“Mat Sims is a guy that we didn’t really know what to expect coming into August,” Doeren said. “He has done his job and made the kicks. He has improved throughout the year. I am very happy with how consistent Mat is and how hard he worked in the off season to become our kicker.”
Northern Illinois had four players named to the 2011 All-MAC second team as receiver Perez Ashford (Shaker Heights, Ohio/Shaker Heights HS), tailback Jasmin Hopkins (Stanley, N.C./East Gaston HS/Fort Scott CC), defensive end Sean Progar (Glenview, Ill./Glenbrook South HS) and safety Jimmie Ward (Mobile, Ala./Davidson HS) received recognition.
NIU leading receiver Nathan Palmer (Elkhart, Ind./Central HS) was a third-team All-MAC selection. Ashford has had a break-out year with 36 catches for 405 yards and two scores, while Hopkins has scored a team-leading 15 touchdowns and gained 872 yards on 167 carries on the season.
Progar leads Northern Illinois and ranks among the league leaders in sacks with 5.5. Ward ranks second on the Huskie team with 87 tackles and has broken up four passes.
“When you are on a winning team, you are going to have guys that get rewarded,” Doeren said. “The guys that were second and third team were certainly deserving, and played a big role on our team. I think our offensive line deserved more than we got. We had two more senior offensive linemen in Joe Pawlak and Keith Otis that I feel could have been on this list, but our choices were limited.
“Defensively this [All-MAC] team illustrates what we are – we are young and we are a work in progress. To be in the championship game and have only two defensive players on any of the three All-MAC teams shows what our coaches and players have done collectively on that side of the ball. It’s a tribute to the way that whole unit has worked and developed throughout the season.”
NIU travels to Detroit Thursday in preparation for Friday’s match-up versus Ohio.
The Marathon MAC Championship game will kick off at 6 p.m. (CT) from Detroit’s Ford Field and will be televised by ESPN2. Tickets can be purchased online for $20 each.