Northern Illinois holds the first of its 15 Spring 2012 football practices Wednesday afternoon at Huskie Stadium as Head Coach Dave Doeren and his team look to continue to build on the momentum of one of the most successful seasons in school history.
The Huskies will enter the 2012 season opener versus Iowa at Chicago’s Soldier Field carrying a nine-game winning streak, the longest current streak in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
For the first time in 28 years, Northern Illinois will go into the season as the defending Mid-American Conference Champions after defeating Ohio, 23-20, on a last-second field goal by kicker Mathew Sims. NIU went on to defeat Sun Belt Conference Champion Arkansas State 38-20 in the GoDaddy.com Bowl in Mobile, Ala. to close out its second straight 11-win campaign.
Wednesday marks the start of practices toward the 2012 season and Doeren said the successes of 2011 have carried over to the offseason workouts.
“This football team has the nation’s longest winning streak. It has 15 straight wins at home, two-time MAC West Champs, obviously conference champs and back-to-back bowl wins,” Doeren said. “There’s a lot to be excited about here for our program. Our players have had a great offseason; they’ve been really focused. They have busted their [tails] all winter and Wednesday they can finally go out and play football. I’m looking forward to watching them do that and seeing some of the competition take place.”
A year ago, Doeren and his new coaching staff entered spring football with an offense that returned nine starters, including four seniors on the offensive line, two senior receivers and a three-year starter at quarterback in Chandler Harnish, while the defense featured just two players who had started a game at the same position in 2010.
For 2012, “the shoe is on the other foot” as the return of 2010 starting linebackers Tyrone Clark and Devon Butler gives the Huskies returning starters at 10 positions on defense, while only receivers Martel Moore and Perez Ashford, and offensive guard Logan Pegram are back for the NIU offense this spring.
“This team is really a flip of last year’s team,” Doeren said.
“We sat here last year talking about how experienced our offense was going to be, how we had no idea who our specialists were and how we had a lot of new starters on defense. You could really just flip the page here and say the opposite. We know exactly who our kicker, snapper, holder and punter are. Our defense returns more than 11 players that started at least a couple of games. Throughout the rotations and injuries, figuring out who was who early in the season, we settled on a bunch of guys that played their best football the last three weeks of the year and they are all back, except for [OLB Jordan] Delegal, [MLB Pat] Schiller and [DT Ron] Newcomb. So I’m excited to know what we are on defense.”
The Huskies’ leading returning tackler is junior defensive back Jimmie Ward, who made 100 tackles and broke up four passes while starting 12 of NIU’s 14 games in a hybrid safety/cornerback role. Ward earned second team All-MAC honors as a sophomore. He leads a defensive backfield that includes cornerbacks Rashaan Melvin and Jhony Faustin and safeties Dechane Durante and Demetrius Stone. The quintet broke up 27 passes and accounted for 10 of NIU’s 13 interceptions on the season, led by Durante and Melvin with three INTs each and Melvin’s nine pass break-ups.
A year ago, Northern Illinois’ defensive line rotation included as many as 10 players and will include three returning senior starters for 2012 in defensive ends Alan Baxter and Sean Progar and noseguard Nabal Jefferson. Baxter co-led the team in tackles for loss with 12.5 and in quarterback sacks with 5.5 with Progar equaling the sacks mark and leading all defensive linemen in tackles with 52. Younger players like Jason Meehan, Joe Windsor, Anthony Wells, Frank Boenzi and Stephen O’Neal saw plenty of playing time in 2011 and enter the 2012 campaign with experience.
Doeren said seeing the “new” seniors develop into that role is one of the areas he will be watching this spring.
“It’s always interesting when your seniors leave and you move the guys down a row in the team meeting room and all of the sudden they are sitting there as seniors,” Doeren said. “To watch them take on that position of leadership, it hits them that [college] is almost over and every day from that point on in their one year span is the last day like it. It’s been fun to watch Martel [Moore] and Perez [Ashford], and now as a senior, to see them in a more mature light, same thing with [Alan] Baxter, [Sean] Progar, [Rashaan] Melvin and [Tyrone] Clark. I’m anxious to watch them on the field in that role.”
At linebacker, the Huskies welcome back middle linebacker Devon Butler, who sat out last season after an off-campus shooting last spring, and Tyrone Clark. Butler was Northern Illinois’ second-leading tackler in 2010 with 80 stops and contributed 7.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and five pass break-ups en route to third-team All-MAC honors. Clark ranked just behind Butler with 78 stops and picked off a team-leading four passes from his outside linebacker spot in 2010.
Butler has been going through the Huskies’ offseason conditioning and received final word a week ago that he would be “full go” for spring ball.
“I’m very excited to watch [Devon],” Doeren said. “He had his final doctors meeting last week… and they gave him the clean bill of health. He went through all of the off-season conditioning and he’s in as good of shape as he’s been in since the incident. I know he’s excited to just start playing the game again. A year ago he was fighting for his life, and it’s good just to see him smile and walking around with a backpack on.”
The Huskies also return all four of their specialists, led by first team all-league kicker Sims, whose first season as a starter included a pair of game-winning threes in the final seconds (vs. Ball State and vs. Ohio).
Punter Ryan Neir, who also serves as the NIU holder, kickoff man Tyler Wedel and snapper Brian Mayer are back along with kickoff return sensation Tommylee Lewis. Lewis’ back-to-back kickoff return touchdowns at Toledo provided just two of the “highlight reel” moments in a 2011 season filled with them.
Lewis is one of six returning letterwinners at wide receiver for the Huskies although he was used primarily in the running game (8 carries for 74 yards and a score) and as a kickoff returner. Moore and Ashford are the top returning receivers as they tied for the team lead (along with the departed Nathan Palmer) with 47 catches. Moore co-led the team with seven receiving TDs and his 747 receiving yards ranked first on the Huskie squad. Da’Ron Brown, Jamison Wells – who will spend the spring splitting time between the Huskie baseball and football teams again this year – and Anthony Johnson also return after catching 24, 14 and 13 passes, respectively.
Northern Illinois’ offensive line is the biggest question mark on the team entering spring ball after the departure of four senior starters. The foursome of tackles Trevor Olson and Keith Otis, center Scott Wedige and guard Joe Pawlak started 28 straight games – every game over the last two seasons – together and played the majority of the snaps in those 28 games. The lone returning starter is senior guard Logan Pegram.
“Offensively, the question mark will really be the chemistry of our offensive line,” Doeren said. “I’m not questioning anything about the talent we have there. There’s a chemistry that those five guys have to have together. This spring will be a big deal for them. There are a lot of things those five guys have to be in unison on. They double team a lot, combination block, they’ll communicate, and they’ll change protections. Our two deep on the O-line will be in flux probably for 15 days. More than likely wherever it starts won’t be where it ends.”
“There will be competition between Ryan Brown and Tyler Pitt, Matt Krempel and Wes Ott at the tackle position, [Logan] Pegram and [Aidan] Conlan on one side, [Matt] Battaglia and [Matt] Killian on the other side at guard, and [Andrew] Ness and [Michael] Gegner at center. I am excited though because of the offseason we had. We’ve got 10 able bodies this spring. The 10 guys you will see on the practice field will all be competing.”
In his pre-spring practice news conference, Doeren left no doubt that junior Jordan Lynch is the Huskies’ starting quarterback. The Chicago Mt. Carmel product takes over after spending the past two years as Harnish’s apprentice. In that role, he completed 19-of-26 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 608 yards on 76 carries with six scores. In the GoDaddy.com Bowl victory, he led NIU to its game-winning score with a seven-play, 78-yard drive highlighted by a 41-yard completion to Moore.
“Jordan Lynch is our starting quarterback,” Doeren said. “We are very excited, not just to watch him play, but to watch him lead. Just watching him and seeing the way he competes as a player, I’m just really excited to watch him grow. He may have been one of the most improved players on our team in our bowl practices. He’s played enough to where being out there is not going to scare him. Now it’s time for him to lead verbally. I know he’s ready.”
The Huskies also must replace tailback Jasmin Hopkins, who scored 15 touchdowns and gained 956 yards on 187 carries in his lone season as a starter. Junior Akeem Daniels and Leighton Settle, senior Jamal Womble and sophomore James Spencer will get their opportunities this spring. Daniels is the most experienced with 390 yards on 66 carries and 17 catches for 248 yards in 25 games over the past two seasons.
Three new coaches take the practice field on Wednesday as Frisman Jackson (wide receivers), Mike Uremovich (running backs/special teams) and Mike Dunbar (offensive coordinator) will see their charges in uniform for the first time. Kevin Kane, who coached tight ends and fullbacks for the Huskies a year ago moves onto the defensive staff with the linebackers, while Joe Tripodi takes over Kane’s former position group.
Doeren said the difference from a year ago, when the first-time head coach saw his team on the field for the first time, to Wednesday is immense.
“It’s night and day,” he said. “I felt like last year, going into the spring, we had our systems and we ran them. As we went, we started to change our systems to fit our personnel and it’s the flip of that now. We already know our personnel, so we are not putting plays in that we don’t think are good for our players. We know what their strengths are. We know what their weaknesses are. I know their personalities. I know how to challenge them. The management of the player is the biggest difference. I know those guys so much better than I did.”
NIU will practice Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from March 28 through April 21, when the Huskies will hold their annual Spring Game starting at 1:30 p.m. Weekday practices are held in the late afternoon at Huskie Stadium and Saturday practices start at 12:20 p.m. Practices are open.
Northern Illinois 2012 football season tickets are on sale now through the NIU Athletics External Office for just $120 for the full six-game Huskie Stadium season. Mini-plans, featuring any three Huskie Stadium games, can be purchased for $60, while NIU’s new HuskieLand Plan tickets provide a ticket to the season-opener versus Tennessee-Martin (Sept. 8), the Kansas game (Sept. 22) and the MAC West rivalry game versus Toledo (TBA).
Season ticket holders can now order tickets to Soldier Field Showdown III – the Huskies’ 2012 season opening game versus Iowa at Soldier Field on Sept. 1 – through the NIU Athletics Ticket Office in the Convocation Center or by calling (815) 752-6800.