In 2014, the NIU offense will feature plenty of familiar faces on the offensive side of the ball, as nine starters from last season return to DeKalb.
However, nowhere has that familiarity been more prevalent than on the offensive line, which returns four of their five starters from last year and several key reserves. With that wealth of experience, offensive line coach Joe Tripodi likes what he has seen so far in camp.
“Overall, I think they’ve worked really hard and there’s a lot of good competition going on right now,” he said. “The big thing now is they need to keep pushing themselves. The sky’s the limit with this group. It’s about putting the work in technically and mentally.”
Yet, the experience doesn’t mean Tripodi can rest easy, either.
“As a coach, you never rest at ease,” he said. “With those guys coming back, you just want to push that much harder. You want to stay on top of them. The older guys have really helped develop a lot of depth, which has in turn created good competition. We can’t rest it easy. We have to keep working every day.”
Most notable of those returnees are two-year starters Ryan Brown (Elburn, Ill./St. Charles North), Aidan Conlon (Flossmoor, Ill./Homewood-Flossmoor), Tyler Loos (Sterling, Ill./Sterling) and Andrew Ness (O’Fallon, Mo./Christian Brothers College). Combined, the group helped NIU boast one of the nation’s most prolific offenses each of the past two seasons and will look to do the same this year.
“They’ve pushed,” Tripodi said about their progress in preseason camp. “Most of those guys are smart football players. I just told them ‘When they’re on, they’re on,’ but we need to be on all the time. That’s what you worry about, the veteran group. I’m fortunate that I’ve got good leaders in this group and they do know how to push the group.”
Key to the returning starters will be the health of Loos, whose last two seasons have been cut short by leg injuries. So far in camp, the Sterling, Illinois, native admitted that he feels great.
“I’m feeling pretty dang good,” Loos said. “We got the last two days off, so they’re sore but feeling pretty good and ready for the season. I’m definitely feeling a lot better this season than I did at this point last year.”
The one spot in the starting lineup that they will need to replace, though, is left guard, which Jared Volk manned for most of the past two seasons. Filling that position in 2014 will be redshirt senior Tyler Pitt (McRae, Ga./Telfair County), who has played in 42 games over the last three seasons and started the 2012 season opener against Iowa.
“Jared was a great player and he did a lot of great things,” Tripodi said. “Now we have Tyler Pitt, who has played in something like 40 games in his career, but he has never been a full-time starter. There is experience there.”
“A young guy at that spot would be Josh Ruka. Aidan Conlon, obviously, is an experienced, veteran guard. We’ve got a good, young group coming up to push the old guys.”
Behind the starters will be a deep group of young and talented reserves, including redshirt sophomores Ron Brown (Detroit, Mich./Mumford), Lincoln Howard (Osceola, Wis./Osceola), Levon Myers (Franklin, Wis./Franklin) and Josh Ruka (Greenfield, Wis./Greenfield) and redshirt senior Michael Gegner (Indianapolis, Ind./Warren Central).
“Out of the younger group, Levon Myers, Josh Ruka and Lincoln Howard have really pushed forward,” Tripodi said. “They’ve got themselves in some good competition.”
Out of the newcomers, the Huskies feature several highly-touted recruits like Shane Evans (Crystal Lake, Ill./Prairie Ridge) and Max Scharping (Green Bay, Wis./Southwest), along with recently-converted tight end Dale Brown (Lee’s Summit, Mo./Lee’s Summit West).
“Shane Evans is going to be a good football player,” Tripodi said. “Max Scharping’s got a great future. We moved Dale Brown from tight end over to offensive tackle. I’m really pleased with the freshman class we were able to bring in this year.”