After posting its second straight 12-win season, playing in its sixth straight bowl game and in the Mid-American Conference Championship game for the fourth consecutive year in 2013, the Northern Illinois University football team returned to the practice field this morning as the Huskies open spring practice.
The Huskies will hold 15 practices over the next five weeks, culminating at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 19, in the Huskie Bowl, the team’s annual spring game. NIU head coach Rod Carey said the players and coaches will focus on individual development to make the Huskies better in 2014.
“In the spring, you can focus more on individual growth as opposed to team growth,” Carey said. “That’s really it at its smallest block. Your individuals have to grow so that your team can grow.”
Carey opens his second spring football practice as head coach with 48 returning letterwinners, 16 returning starters and his coaching staff nearly intact. While there are many key pieces returning from last year, Carey knows this year’s team will be very different than the 2013 squad.
“Each spring is completely different because each team is different. Every year the dynamic changes,” Carey said. “This team is going to be different from the leaders we lost, not just the productivity we had on the field. This team will have a completely different feel, just like last year did, just like the year before did. None of it is the same.”
One of the key leaders the Huskies lost last season was Heisman Trophy finalist Jordan Lynch, who shattered NCAA, MAC and school records during his two years as the Huskies’ starting quarterback. It will be the most-watched position battle taking place this spring.
NIU has three players – Matt McIntosh, Drew Hare and Anthony Maddie – vying for the starting quarterback job. Both McIntosh and Hare saw playing last season, while Maddie sat out the season after transferring to NIU from Western Michigan.
The Huskies return four starters on the offensive line, however they lost the man who played a key role in opening holes for Lynch’s historic season and another key contributor.
Jared Volk spent the last two seasons at starting left guard and was the lead blocker for many of Lynch’s big running plays. Matt Krempel stepped in started at right tackle the final five games of the season following the injury to UMass. Tyler Pitt was part of the Huskie offensive line rotation last year, while Josh Ruka saw some playing time as well. Both will be battling for the open spot.
NIU returns a wealth of experienced players at the offensive “skill” positions as well. In addition to Stingily, all three of the Huskies’ starting wide receivers from 2013, Juwan Brescacin, Da’Ron Brown and Tommylee Lewis, are back. Lewis led the Huskies in receptions with a career-high 86 for 715, while Brown led NIU in receiving yards with 752 on 46 receptions.
On the defensive side of the ball, the linebacker corps will be the strongest it has been at NIU in many years. All three starters – Jamaal Bass, Boomer Mays and Michael Santacaterina – are back, as is much of the Huskie secondary.
Like Lynch, safety Jimmie Ward will be tough to replace from a leadership and a production standpoint. However, three of the four 2013 starters, safety Dechane Durante and cornerbacks Paris Logan and Marlon Moore, return for 2014. A three-year starter, Durante is the veteran of the group and like Ward, he’s a ball hawk. Durante made a career-high three interceptions and forced two fumbles last season.
The area hardest hit by graduation on either side of the ball is the defensive line. Defensive line coach Brett Diersen will be looking to replace the entire starting defensive front four. Fortunately, Perez Ford, Michael Ippolito, Mario Jones, Donovan Gordon and Jason Meehan all saw considerable playing time last year.
While there is a strong group of veterans returning from last year’s squad, the Huskies’ roster features a solid group of young players looking to earn a position.
Linebackers Sean Folliard, Cody Hazelett and Jamaal Payton and safety Mycial Allen saw considerable playing time in the defense last season, while Ladell Fleming and Austin Smaha primarily contributed on special teams. Joel Bouagnon and Draco Smith received carries at the tailback position, and wide receivers Chad Beebe and Aregeros Turner were integrated into the Huskie offense as true freshmen.
Carey believes spring is an excellent time to develop not only those young players that saw playing time last year, but those that are waiting to show what they can do this season.
“I think this is the first time we can really slow things down and focus on the absolute minutest of details,” Carey said. “Guys that haven’t played, have to get into a position to play. That pushes the guys that have been playing to get better, and that moves your whole team forward. That’s what spring is about.”
For more information on NIU football and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.