With only four days left in the Northern Illinois Huskies’ preseason football camp, NIU head coach Dave Doeren mixed fundamentals, special teams, live action and situational drills during Wednesday’s two practices.
In the morning, the Huskies worked on special teams and techniques in shorts and helmets, before suiting up in full gear and picking up the intensity for the afternoon session.
Doeren said the mix of styles is necessary entering today’s 15th and 16th practices to keep the team healthy and fresh for the stretch run of camp, as well as the two weeks of work prior to the Sept. 3 season opener versus Army.
“You’ve got to pick and choose how much you tackle because you want to stay healthy,” Doeren said. “We can expose the guys to a lot of different situations without tackling, but you can’t practice goal line without going live and that’s what we had this afternoon. We try to work them as much as we can but at the same time try to get our legs back.”
The Huskie offense went four-for-four on the goal line, scoring within two plays in first and goal from the five-yard line situations. The rest of the practice looked fairly typical with the run game and pass game receiving equal attention during the hour and a half workout.
“I thought the offense did well during the scrimmage part of the practice,” Doeren said. “The defense didn’t do as well. Up until then, the defense had a really good day, but I thought the offense finished the practice the way I wanted. There was a lot of good back and forth action.”
One group that has stood out on offense for the Huskies during camp has been the wide receivers, both for their depth and for their versatility. The receiving corps can be split into three distinct groups, with the first made up of veterans Willie Clark, Nathan Palmer, Martel Moore and Perez Ashford.
Clark was the Huskies’ leading receiver a year ago with 42 catches and seven touchdowns, while Moore snagged 40 passes for 525 yards and four scores. Palmer averaged a team-leading 18.3 yards on his 29 catches with six scores, while Ashford made 19 grabs.
Of the four, Ashford has stood out this preseason, said NIU receivers coach Bob Cole.
“Perez Ashford is probably having the best camp of any receiver out here,” Cole said. “Those veterans mean a lot to us, because as a coach, you can’t be everywhere. You need help from the vets to school up the young kids. Our young guys are pretty much right on track with everybody else and that’s a huge credit to Martel, Willie, Nate and all the older guys.”
With some of the veterans held out of contact over the past several days of camp, receivers in the Huskies’ next group have stepped up and received increased repetitions. Among those seeing more snaps are sophomore two-sport athlete Jamison Wells, senior quarterback-turned-receiver (and another two-sport athlete) DeMarcus Grady and sophomore Anthony Johnson.
“We have a couple guys that probably are going to see a lot of action but haven’t been on the field much before,” Cole said. “Jamison Wells is coming off a huge baseball season here at NIU. Anthony Johnson played very little last year, and DeMarcus Grady is coming off of basketball. Our goal coming out of camp was to be able to put eight on the field and have eight guys who can flat out play, and I think we’re right at that spot right now.”
Wells spent the spring splitting time between leading off and playing outfield for the Huskie baseball team and spring ball. He hit .321 and stole 27 bases for NIU on the diamond, but is happy to be able to concentrate on just one sport … for now.
“It’s a lot easier just concentrating on one [sport],” Wells said. “It gets hectic during spring ball, but that’s part of it. I love both sports and If I love both I can handle both, it’s not really work to me. Right now I’m locked in on football and it’s been a lot of fun.”
The Huskies also have a trio of true freshmen, each of whom brings a different skill set to the position.
“We have a very tall, big, physical guy in Juwan Brescacin, who has only played the game for three years but is a real talent,” Cole said. “We have an inside guy, A.J. Sebastiano, who is a real polished wide receiver with good speed. He runs great routes and is extremely intelligent. And then we have Tommylee, who is faster than anyone I’ve ever seen. He’s super-quick and is going to do a lot for us in certain situations.”
Overall, Cole could not be happier with his group and their abilities both as receivers, and as blockers.
“That’s a big emphasis for us,” he said. “We know they all want to catch the ball, but their ability to block and to put out great effort in the run game is something they’ve bought into and have done a great job all camp.
“I’m fortunate to have a good crew of guys,” Cole said. “They are all extremely talented, work extremely hard and are a pleasure to coach. We have a good balance of speed. Everyone can catch the ball; it’s incredible what kind of hands they have. We’re blessed as far as athletic ability – from the freshmen all the way to the seniors, they are special.”