The NIU Huskies have been the top rushing team in the Mid-American Conference four of the last five seasons. While quarterback play has garnered most of that rushing attention, the Huskies’ running backs have been a major part of that success.
This season, NIU’s running backs are a committee and will look to shift into a new role: shouldering the load of the Huskies running game in 2014. With a deep and talented group, the offense shouldn’t have any question marks surrounding the group heading into the Aug. 28 game against Presbyterian.
“Our biggest strength is that we have so much diversity. Anyone who’s watched us over the years knows that we like to run multiple offensive sets,” said coach Kelton Copeland. “The bottom line is, we’re going to give the ball to a lot of different players and give them a chance to make plays. That diversity gives us a chance to let us stay on the field, including lining up as a receiver.”
The Huskies are the two-time defending rushing offense champions of the MAC, averaging 238.2 in 2012 and 297.2 yards in 2013. NIU finished second in rushing during the 2011 campaign with 234.1 yards and led the MAC the two years prior with 260.4 ypg in 2010 and 195.2 ypg in 2009.
NIU has a corp of five backs, all with different skill sets, who should be able to share the load in 2014.
After redshirting last season, senior Akeem Daniels (Kissimmee, Florida/Osceola) returns in 2014 to stabilize the running back position with his leadership, speed and shiftiness.
“Akeem is awesome every sense of the word and is a great football player. There’s nothing he can’t do with the ball in his hands,” Copeland said.
In his three previous seasons, Daniels has rushed for 837 yards (6.2 ypc) with 15 touchdowns. Add his 507 receiving yards and four touchdowns and Daniels has combined for 1,344 yards of total offense and 19 touchdowns. Daniels is one of two fifth-year players in the running backs group, and is one of the leaders of the squad this season.
“I’ve been through a lot here at NIU, not only on the field, but off the field socially and academically. I can share that wisdom. I’ve seen and experienced a lot, so I feel like the old man in the group. It feels great,” Daniels said.
NIU only has one junior in group, Keith Harris Jr. (Chicago, Illinois/Leo), who has shown sparks of electricity as a runner in his two previous seasons. With six touchdowns and 369 rushing yards, Harris will be a complement to the running corps.
Other young backs who surely will add to the team’s depth this season include sophomores Joel Bouagnon (Aurora, Illinois/Aurora Christian) and Draco Smith (Hammond, Indiana/Mt. Carmel), who each saw action in 2013. Bouagnon is the Huskies’ tallest back (6-2, 222) this fall and will be looked upon from a physical standpoint.
Bouagnon caught one pass last season, a 10-yard touchdown reception versus Eastern Michigan, while Smith had two carries for 51 yards in that same game.
Redshirt freshman Jordan Huff (Mobile, Alabama/St. Paul’s Episcopal), who also brings size and shiftiness to NIU’s running back stable (5-11, 217), may also be called upon during the 2014 season to boost the Huskies’ running game. He is the only Huskie in the running backs group without game experience this season.
Senior Cameron Stingily (Romeoville, Illinois/Romeoville), who burst onto the scene in 2013, rushed for 1,119 yards (5.5 ypc) and nine touchdowns last season to complement Heisman Trophy finalist Jordan Lynch. Stingily will miss at least the first four games of the season due to injury.
The group, along with the entire offense, will hope for a “three-peat” performance as the Mid-American Conference’s rushing champion. With the entire offensive line returning in front of them, the expectation is there.
With a variety of tools at his disposal, Copeland has one simple goal for the running backs this season – a simple credo with the ultimate recipe for success.
“Our No. 1 goal is to get better every day. That’s the challenge I’ve given to the guys and that’s the challenge that they’ve accepted,” Copeland said. “Coach Carey talks about individual champions as well, and when we come together, we become team champions, so that’s our No. 1 goal.”