Midway through camp, first-year head coach Dave Doeren is pleased with his team’s effort thus far on both sides of the ball.
“The offense has a really good grasp of its system,” Doeren said. “They’re playing a lot of guys. There were a lot of young guys that got some reps here too. Defensively, I like how fast the guys are playing. Our pass rush has been extremely good.”
Over the last few years, the NIU defensive unit has been one of the best in the Mid-American Conference. Much has been made of the loss of nine starters from last season’s defense.
One position hit hard by graduation was the defensive line, losing three starters. However, the Huskies do return five players that saw significant playing time last season, including defensive end Sean Progar, who started all 14 games for the Huskies last season.
What Chandler Harnish is to the Huskie offense, Progar is to the NIU defense. Progar, who has started 21 of his 27 games for the Cardinal and Black, turned in a career year in 2010 tallying 39 tackles including a career high eight tackles against Illinois. A redshirt-junior, his leadership and work ethic have been evident to some of the young NIU defensive linemen and defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen.
“He’s a great leader,” Nielsen said. “The guys follow his lead. He comes out here with his hard hat on, works every day and brings the group along with him.”
Joe Windsor (Kearney, Mo./Kearney) is one of four reserve Huskie defensive linemen that have played in more than 10 games for Northern Illinois last season, seeing action in all 14 contests. Nabal Jefferson (Chicago, Ill./Marist) also played in all 14 games for NIU, while Stephen O’Neal (Park Forest, Ill./Rich East) played in 13. Another major contributor last season, Alan Baxter (Buffalo Grove, Ill./Buffalo Grove), saw action in 11 games.
Nielsen, a defensive lineman for Southern California from 1997-2002, brings with him a familiarity with the position and intense coaching style. His players have responded and appreciate what he brings to the table.
“Coach Nielsen has had a great impact on us,” Windsor said. “He has taught me things I never knew would affect me on the defensive line. The tips he has given me has upped my game that much more and I’m very thankful he’s here.”
Through the midpoint of camp, Nielsen has been really impressed with his player’s work ethic.
“They’ve come out with their hard hat on every day to come to work,” he said. “It’s been pretty impressive.”
One Huskie defensive linemen who has made strides in spring and fall camp is Anthony Wells (North Chicago, Ill./North Chicago). At 6-6, 270 pounds, Wells is a presence inside and Nielsen is satisfied with the progress he has made.
“He’s come a long way,” Nielsen said. “The biggest thing with him is his effort has been fantastic. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. He gets better everyday and he’s developing rather quickly.”