Over the next two weeks, NIUHuskies.com will preview every position on the 2011 Northern Illinois football team, beginning with the offensive line. In addition, sign up for Huskies All-Access to see a video breakdown of every position with interviews and practice highlights. The video will be available within 24 hours after the article is posted. Wednesday’s position group: defensive backs.
Last season, all the Northern Illinois offense did was lead the Mid-American Conference in total and scoring offense and rank seventh in the nation in rushing yards per game. A good sign for the Huskies is that all five starters from last year’s offensive line are back for 2011 to provide a firm foundation for the offensive unit.
Not only does the line measure in at an average of 6’4”, 318 pounds, all five of the starters are upperclassmen and have plenty of experience (116 starts) to boot. Both are large reasons as to why Phil Steele’s 2011 College Football Preview publication has the NIU offensive line ranked No. 4 in the nation as a collective unit.
Having such a battled-tested group in the trenches bodes well for a team that is fronted by first year head coach Dave Doeren and Co. The front five should make the coaching transition go smoothly under the unit’s guidance by first year assistant coach Rod Carey, who is no stranger to offensive line success.
“They are a good group of people, not just the starters, the whole group,” Carey said. “They come from good families and work hard. It’s really easy to coach them.”
In the past three seasons as offensive line coach at North Dakota, Carey displayed the propensity to administer productive units. In 2008, his line cleared the way for UND’s Josh Murray to run for over 1,100 yards. A year later, his group helped the fighting Sioux compile over 2,000 passing yards. Carey figures to keep, and improve upon, that type of balanced production in his first season with the Huskies.
“Our goals our high and our expectations are even higher,” Carey said. “We are going to push the bar higher and higher. It’s not good enough to be average with this group. They understand that and we as coaches understand that and are working hard to achieve that everyday.
“They are already good, but it’s tough to get better. That’s the challenge they have this year.”
Leading the way for front five is Rimington Trophy Watch List member Scott Wedige (Elkhorn, Wis./Elkhorn Area). The fifth-year senior is one of 42 centers to be named on the award’s watch list for being one of the nation’s most outstanding centers. In Phil Steele’s book, Wedige comes in at No. 23 among his top 44 centers in the nation and is a preseason first team All-MAC selection. The 6’4”, 314 pounder started all 14 games for the Huskies in 2010 and was the anchor on the offensive line of the MAC’s top offense. The Huskies led the league in total offense (450 yards per game) and rushing yards per game (260.4, ranked seventh in the nation).
One position to the left of Wedige is another solid wall in the form of 6’6”, 302-pound Trevor Olson (Richfield, Minn./Richfield), who was one of 49 offensive linemen named to the Outland Trophy Watch List for being one of the nation’s best interior linemen. Also a fifth-year senior, Olson is NIU’s most experienced offensive lineman with 40 straight starts under his belt at left tackle. A 2010 first team All-MAC selection and preseason All-MAC selection by five different preseason publications, Olson is a key member of an offensive that the league and ranked 14th in the country in sacks allowed. Phil Steele ranks Olson at No. 26 among the nation’s top offensive tackles.
A third fifth-year senior on the group is 6’5”, 301-pound Joe Pawlak (Grayslake, Ill./Grayslake), who Phil Steele ranks at No. 46 among the country’s best guards. A 2010 second team All-MAC selection, the right guard has started every game of the last two seasons (27) for NIU, and has 38 career games of experience. Pawlak was a key member of an offense that led the MAC in scoring last season, outputting 38 points per game.
The fourth fifth-year senior on the front five is Keith Otis (Chicago, Ill./Hubbard), who started all 14 games at right tackle in 2010. The 6’4”, 327-pounder’s presence on the right side played a large role in NIU setting the MAC all-time rushing record for yards in a season.
The last link in the offensive line’s chain is 6’3”, 310-pound Logan Pegram (Silver Lake, Kan./Silver Lake). The left guard started 10 games for the Huskies last year and has played in 23 games over the past two seasons. The redshirt junior was an important contributor in clearing paths for NIU to break eight single season offensive records in 2010, including points scored (532), point per game (38.0), total offensive yards (6,300), yards per game (450.0), first downs (303), and touchdowns (65).
With such a seasoned set of veterans protecting and clearing paths, the 2011 offensive line could propel the Huskies to another record-setting campaign and give NIU its third straight MAC rushing crown.
The Huskies practiced in full pads for the first time Monday but had to navigate the threatening weather, which caused two lightning delays and pushed practice to start at 7:30 p.m. instead of 3:15 p.m. Because of the late start, the Huskies squeezed in 18 five-minute periods of practice.
From the get-go, however, the offensive line established itself by giving the running backs several easy touchdowns without being touched by the defense. The defense would eventually catch up to the offensive line’s performance, which made practice very entertaining. Being delayed, practicing under the lights and donning pads for the first time, created some loud hits, boisterous chatter and plenty of camaraderie.
“I saw them competing hard,” Carey said. “You have to get your football legs underneath you during preseason camp. We are just five days in and they’re coming along but they were competing. They were competing hard, and that’s what we like to see.”
“Underneath the lights tonight there was a ton of energy,” Wedige said. “There were some competitive players out there tonight and it was a lot of fun. I haven’t seen it like that in a while. Pads were popping and guys were getting after it.”