It is a comforting thing for coaches to see veterans on their two-deep depth chart, players that have experience when the lights come on and players that can help guide the youngsters at their position.
The NIU football team has just that luxury when it comes to its tight ends and fullbacks group, where four seniors and a junior will lead the way.
While the group has a number of veterans, head coach Rod Carey has no doubt who the leader of the group is.
“It all starts and ends with Luke Eakes,” said Carey. “He is a senior; he has played a lot of football here for us and has done a great job. He is in great shape right now, he has had a great first four days and he is primed to have his best year as a senior, which we need.
“Then you have Desroy Maxwell, who is already in his third year if you can believe that. He has played a lot of football around here. Tim Semisch has played a lot, which is good. Ricky Connors, Rob Sterling, Shane Wimann, Ryan Stendler and the two freshmen, Dale Brown and Denzel Tolliver. So you have a good group there, a lot of experience, a lot of expectations and some young guys who are really pushing the old guys, which is good to see.”
Eakes, a fifth-year senior from St. Marys, Kan., has played in 42 games during his NIU career, including 27 starts. The 6-foot-3 Eakes has caught 26 passes as a Huskie for 430 yards, including three touchdowns. Last season, Eakes caught 12 passes, including a career-best three against Utah State in the Poinsettia Bowl.
As the most experienced player at his position, Eakes has grown into his role as a leader, trying to impart in veteran wisdom the same way older players did for him early in his career.
“I am trying to help develop the freshmen, taking a role as a leader of the team, picking up players when they are down,” said Eakes. ““When I was a freshman and sophomore, (Jason) Schepler was a senior and he helped me along the whole way, always coaching me up when I needed it, so I have been trying to do the same for the underclassmen.”
Eakes has plenty of help in leading the newcomers as fellow tight ends Maxwell (Evanston, Ill./Amundsen) and Semisch (Omaha, Neb./Millard North/Neb.-Omaha) have combined to play 62 career games.
Maxwell has seven starts among his 25 games played and caught 11 passes a season ago for 113 yards, including his first career touchdown against Akron. Semisch has six starts in his 37 games played. At 6-foot-8, he provides a big target and has made 10 career catches, three of which have resulted in touchdowns.
Along with the trio veteran tight ends, the group also had a pair of senior fullbacks in Sterling (Lansing, Ill./T.F. South) and Connors (Powder Springs, Ga./Harrison). Sterling has played in 37 games during his first three seasons at NIU and caught four passes last season for 25 yards. Connors meanwhile has seen action in 14 games as a Huskie and caught his first career pass, an 11-yard touchdown, last season against Eastern Michigan.
Leading the veteran tight ends and fullbacks group is a first-year member of the staff that is no stranger to the Huskie football program. A quarterback at NIU from 1998-2000 and graduate assistant in 2004-05, Craig Harmon is in his first season on Coach Carey’s staff as Tight Ends/Fullbacks Coach. Like Carey, Harmon likes what he has in his experienced group.
“We do have a veteran group,” said Harmon. “We have four seniors in the group, the guys have been in the system for a while, are very coachable and they are great leaders for the young guys and they know what it takes, they know what it means to say ‘The Hard Way’ every day.
“Each of them is different. Obviously we are early in camp here and we are still getting going, each of them are different but what we try to do is we try to have each of them be multi-faceted. Obviously Rob (Sterling) and Ricky (Connors) are true fullbacks, the other guys are more in a tight end role but we like those guys to be able to do both things, play on the ball, play off the ball and play out wide, we don’t want them to be nailed to one thing.”
Along with the usual excitement for the beginning of another season, returning to DeKalb has brought extra enthusiasm this season for Harmon.
“It’s amazing. I played here, GA’ed here, so this is home to me. I taught my son the fight song, it was the first song I sang to him and he knows how to go, ‘Forward, Together, Forward,’ so this is home, I am excited and my family is excited.”
For more information on NIU football and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.
Throughout fall camp, NIUHuskies.com will preview every position on the 2014 Northern Illinois football team, beginning with tight ends and fullbacks. 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.