The Northern Illinois University Huskies took the field at Huskie Stadium for a pair of practices Saturday to close out the first full week of 2014 preseason camp.
NIU practiced in full pads Saturday morning for a little over two hours, then returned to the Brigham Field in shorts and shoulder pads for an evening workout under the lights.
Through nine practices over the last eight days, NIU Head Coach Rod Carey said he was pleased with the progress the Huskies have made.
“The first week was good overall,” Carey said. “For the most part, the energy was good, they came out with good tempo and I’m proud of how well they learned. There are a lot of details we need to work on, but that’s normal for the first week.”
The highlight of Saturday’s morning session was a pair of long Drew Hare touchdown completions during the “Move the Ball” 11-on-11 periods. Hare hit transfer Kenny Golladay for a 75-yard touchdown pass on the second play and three series later, he connected with Clayton Glasper on an 80-yard long TD.
The evening session saw more emphasis on the passing game and extended individual and special teams drills, but Carey said the work accomplished was no less significant. Saturday marked the Huskies’ first two-a-day practice of the preseason.
“I thought we had good life coming back out tonight,” Carey said. “It’s not easy putting the pads on a few hours after taking them off. We had good energy and got a lot of work done.”
Throughout Saturday’s practices, as has been the case throughout the first week of preseason camp, extensive practice time was devoted to special teams. Whether it is blockers and gunners doing footwork and blocking drills, returners catching punts and kickoffs, or kickers and punters getting work on their own or in team settings, every player on the team is involved with special teams.
“Everyone, including the quarterbacks, you will see them all on special teams,” Carey said. “We’ve got our quarterbacks on the hands team so if you are going to play on offense or defense, you have to play on special teams and you have to be a contributor there. You’re going to see all our guys – whether you are a young guy or an old guy – getting reps on special teams.”
While Carey and special teams coordinator Kevin Kane know that every player on special teams must do his job for the units to be successful, much of the focus is on the kickers, punters and return men. Any discussion of the Huskies’ 2014 specialists starts with senior Tyler Wedel (McFarland, Wis./McFarland HS). A year ago, Wedel added punting to the kickoff duties he had handled for the last three seasons and averaged 40.3 yards on 50 punts. He also stepped in when starter Mathew Sims was out with an injury and made three-of-five field goal attempts and all eight of his PATs versus Akron and Central Michigan.
“Mat Sims did a phenomenal job while he was here,” Wedel said. “I got to learn under him which was awesome. Right now, I am doing field goals, punting and kickoffs and I like [doing all three]. A lot of people think it’s difficult, but I like the challenge and I’m excited to do it this year.”
In addition to Wedel, there are four other punters and kickers in camp competing for the jobs at punter or kicker. At kicker, sophomore Josh Orne (Wales, Wis./Kettle Moraine HS) and true freshmen Andrew Stark (Palatine, Ill./Fremd HS) and Christian Hagan (Omaha, Neb./Westside HS) are challenging Wedel, while freshman Peter Deppe (Almont, Mich./Almont HS) is the second punter.
While Wedel has proven capable of handling all three roles at the same time and is ahead at both positions right now, Carey said he would like to another player step up to lighten the senior’s load.
“I know Tyler can [handle all three spots], it’s just hard for anybody to do it,” Carey said. I’d rather not have him do all three and that’s where the opportunity for the other guys comes in. If a guy wins a job as punter, Wedel can just do field goals and kickoffs. If a guy wins the job on field goals, then Wedel can do kickoffs and punts. I’d like that to happen but I’m not going to throw someone out there to make it happen. A guy has to earn it, because I know Tyler can get in there and do a good job.”
Kane said Wedel has had an excellent start in practices so far.
“Tyler Wedel has had a great camp coming in here so far,” Kane said. “He’s punting the ball well, he’s kicking the ball well, he’s kicking PAT/FGs and he’s doing a lot of things very well.”
Snapper Brian Mayer (Orland Park, Ill./Sandburg HS) and his back-up, Bobby Ramlett (Appleton, Wis./Xavier HS) return, while Orne and receiver Chad Beebe (Aurora, Ill/Aurora Christian HS) are currently working as the holders.
On the return side of the special teams, Paris Logan (kickoffs), Aregeros Turner (kickoffs) and school record-holder Tommylee Lewis (kickoffs and punts) are back but will be challenged by an exciting and potentially electrifying group of freshmen. The sure-handed Logan led NIU with 20 kickoff returns, while Turner did not really get to show everything he could do in the role on just four returns. Lewis, who has at least one kickoff return score in each of his first three seasons at NIU, averaged 28.4 yards on 11 kickoff returns that included a 99-yard runback for a touchdown at Purdue.
Just a week into camp, the three are among a large group of Huskies contending for a spot on returns as Florida freshmen Shawun Lurry (West Palm Beach, Fla./W.T. Dwyer HS), Ezra Saffold (West Palm Beach, Fla./W.T. Dwyer HS), Albert Smalls (Miramar, Fla./Miramar HS) and Deion Hallmon (Weston, Fla./Cypress Bay HS), as well as Illinoisan Tifonte Hunt (Harvey, Ill./Thorntown Township HS), are all getting a look. Kane said the Huskies are looking to build depth at the position.
“Last year we got into a pickle when Tommylee went down and we had very few guys back there to do it,” Kane said. “One thing we did this past offseason, we brought a lot of guys with speed as far as our recruiting class. Now Tommylee is back, looking great, and we have a lot of young guys back there with a chance to put on some shows for us. As long as we block for them, I think we have a good chance to be successful on returns.”
Kane said while the Huskies spend a lot of time on special teams, the coaching staff also tries to make that aspect of the game fun.
“I would think we spend more time than any team in the country on special teams,” Kane said. “We meet at it daily as a staff, we meet daily as units, but we try to make it fun too. We’ve had some success in the past here with our return game and some surprises out there. Guys have fun with it and we try to make it lively whenever we can.”