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NIU's Free shrugs off preseason hype

Northern Illinois defensive end Ken West, one of four senior captains, hits Ball State quarterback Joey Lynch in a game last season. West and the Huskies reported for camp on Sunday afternoon and begin practice tonight. Chronicle file photo

DeKALB - As the preseason honors keep rolling in for Garrett Wolfe and Doug Free, Northern Illinois football coach Joe Novak continues to downplay the hype. The sentiment generally expressed by Novak, the 11th-year coach with an old-school, team-first mentality, is, it's a nice honor, but once we're on the field, none of it really matters. However, Novak displayed a dash of new-age player promotion at NIU's Media Day at Harry Caray's Restaurant in Chicago on Wednesday, adding logs to an already raging fire by proclaiming Free could very well be the highest drafted Huskie ever, topping John Spills (1969, Green Bay, third round, 64th pick). &#8220Doug can probably go to the NFL and play tight end, that's how athletic he is,” Novak said. Free has adopted the same attitude toward the hype as his coach, even if some of the hype has come from his mouth. &#8220It really doesn't affect me too much,” Free said of preseason expectations. &#8220People can talk and do this or do that, but when it really comes down to it, I control my own destiny. How good I play and how hard I work, it all depends on myself. I have to focus in this last year and play hard.” The 6-foot-7, 302-pounder did admit the hype does place some extra pressure on him, but stressed it doesn't compare to the pressure and expectations he has always put on himself. &#8220There is a little bit of pressure, but I've always put pressure on myself,” Free said. &#8220I've always tried to perform to the highest of my ability. Ever since I was young, I always wanted to be the best. That's something that was instilled in me since I was young, so it's just a natural thing for me.” All the preseason hype is about to be washed away as the Huskies report to camp today to start preparation for the season. The Huskies open on Sept. 2 at Ohio State, the No. 1 in the nation according to the USA Today Coaches' Poll released on Friday. Free said the Huskies, who were picked to win the Mid-American Conference after going 7-5 with a MAC title game appearance last season, must enter the OSU game expecting to win. &#8220It's a great thing to open up in such a venue,” Free said. &#8220No matter what happens in that game, you can always say I played at Ohio State. There is a lot of great tradition there. As far as expectations for the game, you always have to expect to win. I don't know any athlete that would go out on the practice field or the game field without the expectation to win.” Free, one of four Huskie captains, is looking forward to the team's first practice on Monday when he and his offensive linemates can continue the jelling process needed to replace three starters from last season. Matt Rogers, Chris Acevedo and Matt Biondi step in for Ben Lueck, Brian Van Acker and Jake Ebenhoch. It's been a while since spring ball,” Free said. &#8220It's nice to get a break from football here and there, but I have the itch coming back. It's exciting to get back out there, especially with the new guys on the line. It's a good time to get out there and see how everybody reacts and just work together and get some bonding going on.” How quickly and how well the offensive line comes together may have an affect on how well the offense - which returns Heisman hopeful Wolfe and two proven quarterbacks in Phil Horvath and Dan Nicholson - performs this year. Not surprisingly, Free doesn't want to place any expectations on the offense. &#8220You never know how good the offense can be until we get out on the field,” Free said. &#8220You can't put any expectations on it. We have a lot of skill position players back so there is no reason why we shouldn't do as good as last year or even better. The main test is how well the offensive line works together. If we prove to be as good as last year, I think we can have a running game just as good.” Kevin Chlum can be reached at

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