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Football’s Chad Spann wins Vern Smith Award, given to Mid-American Conference’s top player

December 1, 2010
Chad Spann

Chad Spann

Northern Illinois senior running back Chad Spann (Indianapolis, Ind./North Central HS) has been named the winner of the Mid-American Conference 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 13 Huskies in all, six on the first team.

Spann is the fifth Northern Illinois player to win the Vern Smith Leadership Award, and an NIU player has claimed the honor in four of the last five years.

Two years ago, defensive end Larry English won the second of his back-to-back league “MVP” trophies while tailback Garrett Wolfe’s selection in 2006 made him the first Huskie in 23 years to win the award.

Spann has scored 20 touchdowns in 2010 to break the NIU single season record, surpassing such Huskie greats as Wolfe, Michael Turner and Stacey Robinson.

He ranks 17th in the nation in rushing has scored at least one touchdown in each of NIU’s last 10 games to rank seventh in scoring. His 47 career rushing TDs rank second in NIU history. He has posted his second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season in 2010 with 1,239 yards on 226 carries and is averaging 5.5 yards per carry and 103.2 rushing yards per game. 

In addition to being honored as the MAC’s top football player, Spann 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.

“It’s definitely a tremendous honor,” Spann said “When you look at the history of the award, you have Garrett Wolfe, Larry English, Dan LeFevour and going all the way back to Byron Leftwich, all those guys had great careers and are now playing in the NFL. It’s just a great honor to be included in this group of MAC football players.”

Spann, who leads the No. 24-ranked (AP)/No. 23 (USA Today/Coaches) Huskies into the 2010 Marathon MAC Championship game this Friday in Detroit versus East Division champion Miami (Ohio), was quick to credit his teammates.

“It’s an award for the entire offense,” he said. “If I didn’t have a great offensive line or fullbacks Kyle Skarb and Connor Flahive blocking for me, I wouldn’t have done so well this season. It’s definitely an award that shows the talents of all 11 guys out on the field.”

Northern Illinois Head Coach Jerry Kill also recognized that with team success – the Huskies are 10-2, went undefeated in the Mid-American Conference for the first time and are riding a nine-game winning streak into the conference championship game – comes individual recognition.

“Awards and honors go along with the success of the team,” Kill said. “The recognition these guys received are team awards as well as individual awards. I am happy for each and every one of them, but I am happy for the team most of all. Each and every kid has a story. Chad Spann came here as a walk-on to Coach Novak’s credit, I think by the time school started, he had a scholarship. His story is a great example for any kid out there looking to play college football and someone says they can’t.”

Junior quarterback Chandler Harnish (Bluffton, Ind./Norwell HS) and Spann led the Huskies’ contingent on the All-MAC team. Harnish is the first Northern Illinois quarterback ever to be named to the first team all-conference squad and the first NIU signal-caller to make an all-MAC team since 1983 Vern Smith Award winner Tim Tyrrell was a second-team choice in 1983.

Harnish has completed 66 percent of his passes (157-of-238) for 1,949 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2010 and ranks second on the Huskie team in rushing with 761 yards and five scores. He needs 235 yards to break the Huskies’ single season total offense record.

“We would not be where we are as a football team without Chandler Harnish,” Kill said. “No question that with the way he has played, we would not be where we are. Everyone on our team knows that and so do the people that watch our team play.”

Three Huskie offensive linemen, along with tight end Jason Schepler (Sycamore, Ill./Sycamore HS) and senior wide receiver Landon Cox (Calumet City, Ill./T.F. North HS), were named to one of the three teams. Left tackle Trevor Olson (Richfield, Minn./Richfield), a three-year starter, and center Scott Wedige (Elkhorn, Wis./Elkhorn Area HS)earned first team recognition, right guard Joe Pawlak (Grayslake, Ill./Grayslake HS) garnered a spot on the second team, while Schepler and Cox were third-team selections.

“Everyone said the offensive line was our biggest question mark coming into the season,” Kill said. “To me the key is they have played well as a group, including the tight ends and the fullbacks. The reason they have been so good is they have no egos, great coaching and continuity.”

Northern Illinois backs have 11 100-yard rushing games this year and the Huskies rank seventh in the nation in rushing and 10th in the country in fewest sacks allowed.

Defensively, NIU had a pair of players named to the All-MAC first team in sophomore defensive end Sean Progar (Glenview, Ill./Glenbrook South HS) and senior cornerback Chris Smith (Palmetto, Fla./Palmetto HS). Progar leads all Huskie defensive linemen in tackles with 34 and has 8.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks on the season. Smith has 55 tackles and leads NIU with nine pass break-ups while his three interceptions are second on the team.

“Sean Progar has had an excellent year,” Kill said. “He’s another guy that walked on here and worked hard and plays with a chip on his shoulder. Chris Smith, the thing I am most proud of with him is that he is getting his college degree in December. He is a gifted athlete and a gifted football player and he’ll have a chance to play at the next level.”

Senior defensive end Jake Coffman (German Valley, Ill./Forreston HS), ranked first on the team in quarterback sacks and tackles for loss, was named to the All-MAC second team, while leading tacklers Alex Kube (Cary, Ill./Cary-Grove HS) and Devon Butler (Pembroke Pines, Fla./Everglades HS) were third team choices. Return specialist Tommy Davis (East St. Louis, Ill./Althoff Catholic HS) rounded out the NIU honorees as a third team selection after averaging 24.2 yards per kickoff return.

If Kill had a question about the Huskies selected, it was on defense.

“We play a lot of players on defense and maybe that makes it tough when it comes to getting the recognition they deserve,” Kill said. “They understand that. I’m happy for the kids mentioned, but feel there should be more. Jake Coffman is a first teamer in my opinion – he’s a first teamer on and off the field. Alex Kube is a kid who has come further than anyone on the team. He’s made himself into an excellent leader. You can’t give enough recognition to someone who has changed his whole life.”

The Huskies’ six first team choices are the most since 2005, when seven NIU players made the league’s top squad. Northern Illinois’ 13 overall honorees led all schools in the MAC and ranks as the most in school history.

Of Northern Illinois’ 13 players honored, five (Spann, Progar, Pawlak, Coffman, Schepler) originally came to NIU without a scholarship as walk-ons.