Northern Illinois Huskies
2017 Record: 8-5 (6-2, MAC West)
2017 Review: NIU suffered several injuries at QB, forcing them to use three different starters during the season. Not surprisingly, the offense struggled, averaging just 28.9 points per game and 5.1 yards per play. The Huskies finished 93rd in total offense and their running attack, which is their bread and butter, was the worst since 2008.
Scheme: Most FSU fans will remember NIU from the 2012 Orange Bowl, when NIU QB Jordan Lynch famously claimed that FSU would be worn out by NIU’s up-tempo, spread attack. Lynch lived to eat those words, but six years later, the offense is not much different. Head coach Rod Carey was the interim coach that night, having taken over for the departed Dave Doeren and Carey still runs a spread offense that tries to use a power running game and play-action passing. The offense has struggled for the past few years due to QB injuries, but NIU is going to try to line up and ram the ball down your throat. Carey is a former OL coach and he prides himself on playing smash mouth offense.
Quarterbacks: As mentioned already, this position has been a revolving door due to injuries over the past two years. Then-true freshman Marcus Childers finally stabilized the position five games into the season last year. The offense wasn’t substantially better with Childers (1674 yds, 57%, 16 TDs, 5 INTs, 473 yds rushing, 5 TDs) numbers-wise, but he provided stability and he was less prone to mistakes than previous starters. Childers ended the season as the MAC Freshman of the Year and he has potential due to his running ability and his ability to take what the defense gives him. To take the next step, Childers may need to take a few more chances, but, for the moment, he provides the Huskies with their best QB since Lynch graduated.
Because of all the injuries, depth here very good. Senior Ryan Graham (190 yds, 40%, 2 TDs, INT) won the job last year, but was injured in the opener and was lost for the season. He provides an experienced backup.
Running Backs: Injuries struck here, too, forcing leading rusher Jordan Huff to miss three games. The positive side of that is now that Huff has graduated, there are three players who saw significant action because of his injury. No one jumps off the page as a difference-maker, but NIU has three steady options to choose from.
Junior Marcus Jones (350 yds, 4.2 avg, 3 TDs, 12 receptions) is the presumptive starter after seeing a lot of action in Huff’s absence and finishing third on the team in rushing last season. Sophomore Tre Harbison (290 yds, 5.3 avg, 3 TDs) and senior Tommy Mister (167 yds, 4.8 avg, TD) will get their chances too as they have shown more explosiveness, albeit in small samples, than Jones. Harbison and Mister are two of the highest rated recruits on the roster.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends: This group is probably the biggest concern on this side of the ball. Of last year’s top five targets, only two return and depth is very unproven. The known commodities are junior Spencer Tears and senior DJ Brown. Tears (43 recs, 528 yds, 4 TDs) led the team in receptions and yards and is efficient and steady. Brown (42 recs, 365 yds, 3 TDs) is a tough matchup in the slot and is used on jet sweeps at times, racking up over 100 rushing yards last year. He could stand to create more explosive plays as a receiver, but he is reliable.
After Tears and Brown, there are questions. Senior Jauan Wesley (10 recs, 250 yds, 2 TDs) caught 30 passes at Iowa State in 2015, but he has not produced much since transferring to NIU. That being said, he did flash some potential, breaking off long scoring catches against Ball State and Duke. There is a pretty good chance 3* redshirt freshmen Cole Tucker and Dennis Robinson and 3* true freshman Charles Robinson will all get chances to play here.
NIU lost a solid tight end in Shane Wimann, who led the team in touchdown receptions and finished fourth in catches, but they have numbers here to replace him by committee. Junior Daniel Crawford was the top backup last year, but he is built more like an H-back. Junior Mitchell Brinkman is bigger and flashed some potential last season. Three-star redshirt freshman Liam Soraghan will definitely get chances to shoot up the depth chart.
Offensive Line: This should be the best unit Carey has fielded in his time at NIU and it should be one of the best offensive lines in the MAC. All five starters are back and there are two other players on the roster who have started as well. Additionally, not a single offensive lineman who was on last year’s roster left, so this is an experienced, big group.
Of the starting five, senior LT Max Scharping is the star. A nothing recruit out of high school, Scharping has grown to 6-6, 320, has 39 career starts, and was 1st team All-MAC last year. He has NFL potential. After that, junior LG Jordan Steckler and senior C Luke Shively are your next best. Steckler has 21 career starts and was 3rd team All-MAC last year while Shively has 25 career starts and is a preseason All-MAC selection. On the right side, junior RG Nathan Veloz and junior RT Ryan Roberts have 13 and 8 starts respectively. Depth is great, with sophomore Isaac Hawn and classmate Benn Olson having earned starts in their young careers. NIU can also turn to upperclassmen like senior tackle Dale Brown and junior guard Vincent Hughes.
2017 Review: In a conference known for high-flying offenses and MACtion, NIU was the aberration. The Huskies played stifling defense and most definitely would not have gotten to 8 wins without this side of the ball. The Huskies led the MAC in scoring and total defense, finishing in the top 32 in three major statistical categories.
Scheme: You’ve no doubt heard defensive coaches prattle on about playing fast and physical? That was NIU last year. They were fast and played with reckless abandon, attacking on nearly every snap. After coordinator Kevin Kane left for the same job at SMU, Carey promoted LBs coach Jeff Knowles to the DC job. Knowles is likely to keep the same scheme in place: a 4-3 built on speed and attacking. NIU may be undersized in the front seven, but they attempt to make up for that with fast, aggressive players.
Defensive Line: Inarguably the best unit the Huskies had last year, the defensive line should be very good again. Of the twelve players who appeared in at least nine games, nine are back. The leader of this group is definitely junior end Sutton Smith, who led the nation in tackles for loss last year and was the MAC Defensive Player of the Year. Smith (63 tackles, 29.5 for loss, 14 sacks, 3 forced fumbles) is undersized at 6-0, 225, but he has a tremendous first step, is blazing fast for a lineman, and hustles. He should contend for more postseason honors this year.
No one else on the depth chart is as good as Smith, but there are still some very good pieces here. Senior Josh Corcoran (34 tackles, 8.5 for loss, 3.5 sacks) provides size and is steady at the other starting end spot. Depth at end isn’t great, but senior Drequan Brown, junior Quintin Wynne, and sophomore Matt Lorbeck all got playing time last year.
At defensive tackle, junior Ben LeRoy and sophomore Jack Heflin both return after starting last season. LeRoy (37 tackles, 7.5 for loss, 3 sacks) is a playmaker who uses quickness to create havoc. Heflin is more of space eater and run stuffer. Heflin is being pushed hard by classmate Weston Kramer (19 tackles, 2.5 for loss) for a starting job after he flashed as a true freshman. That trio will likely see the majority of the snaps, but senior Devin Webster (10 tackles, 1 sack) and senior Herlandez Corley have experience. Junior Marcus Kelly was one of the highest rated recruits in this segment, although he has yet to play much.
Linebackers: The biggest questions on defense occur here, where no starters return and Jawaun Johnson, who led the team in interceptions and was second in tackles and tackles for loss, unexpectedly transferred to TCU. The Huskies are banking on a return to form for junior MLB Kyle Pugh, who was limited to four games last year due to injury. Pugh (35 tackles, INT) was on pace to have a huge year and Carey thinks he has the potential to be among the best defensive players in NIU history.
Who starts at the outside spots is where most of the mystery lies. As of now, the leaders are juniors Antonio Jones-Davis (45 tackles, 2 for loss) and Lance Deveaux. Jones-Davis was a starter for most of last year and Devaux was a top backup, but neither have shown the playmaking ability of Johnson. Depth is going to be almost exclusively freshmen. The coaches like Jordan Cole on the outside and Rayshawn Gay on the inside as backups, both of whom are redshirt freshmen. True freshmen Joseph Bonds, Reggie Jennings, and Kewan Parker were all 3* recruits and might push for a backup role.
Secondary: Technically speaking, only two starters return to this unit, but that belies the fact that several guys who have played extensively as backups or missed time due to injury last year return. This is an experienced and pretty talented group. NIU lacks a lot of size here, but they have fast, physical defensive backs.
The Huskies might be deepest at safety, where junior Mykelti Williams returns after finishing third in tackles last year. Williams (73 tackles, INT, 6 pass breakups) is among the highest rated recruits on the team and is a steady leader. Junior Trayshon Foster (23 tackles, 2 sacks, INT) will start alongside Williams after serving as a top backup last year. Junior Adam Buirge (12 tackles, 1.5 for loss) adds more experience and the coaches are very excited junior Trequan Smith is back in the fold. Smith was a top backup in 2016 who had a chance to start last season, but missed the whole year due to injury.
A trio of players will lead the way at corner. Senior Albert Smalls (44 tackles, 6 PBUs) is a returning starter who has nice size at 6-0, 200. Classmate Jalen Embry (33 tackles, 2 for loss, 3 PBUs) was the highest rated recruit of the corners and really began to flash his athleticism and cover ability last year as a part-time starter. Sophomore Daniel Isom returns from injury after starting as a freshman in 2016. He isn’t the biggest guy at 5-10, 170, but he is tough and has good technique. Senior Tifonte Hunt has some experience, but don’t be surprised if highly rated true freshmen Justin Hall, Antwain Walker, or Zhamaine March get a look.
Special Teams: This unit got a big boost when senior Andrew Gantz transferred in from Cincinnati. Gantz has made 39 of 49 field goals in his career and has twice been nominated for the Lou Groza Award. He should provide improvement to a team that made only 9 of 16 field goals last year. Sophomore Matt Ference returns after averaging 41.2 yards per punt as a freshman. However, Ference’s net was not so great as opponents averaged 7.2 yards per return, with one touchdown. The kick coverage unit was not great either, also allowing a touchdown.
Schedule: MAC teams often play difficult non-conference schedules, but NIU’s is pretty rough even by MAC standards. NIU opens at Iowa, then plays at Utah, and travels to FSU in week four. They also have an October date at BYU. The MAC schedule is more forgiving, with top contenders Ohio, Toledo, and Miami of Ohio coming to NIU.
Overall: NIU has the talent to be among the best teams in the MAC, but the non-conference schedule could drag their win total down. Still, they are stacked on both lines, have a promising QB, and depth at RB and DB. There are questions at WR and LB and NIU needs to create more explosive plays in the passing game, but the pieces are there for the Huskies to field a very good team. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ system sees NIU as a 6-win team, mostly because his analytics do not have much faith in the offense, which is ranked 105th in his rankings. Still, the talent level and where NIU returns players (specifically being strong on the lines) leads me to believe this could be an eight or nine-win team.