DeKALB – It’s safe to say Phillip Livas is still on Jerry Kill’s mind.
Northern Illinois begins the first of 15 spring football practices at 7 a.m. this morning at Huskie Stadium and Kill, the NIU coach who enjoys talking about special teams like a mathematician does protractors, will put an extra point of emphasis on identifying issues with NIU’s special teams – along with a few other positions.
Among the areas of improvement on special teams, kickoff coverage will certainly get a second and third look. Livas, the electric Louisiana Tech returner, burned NIU for a 97-yard kickoff return in the Independence Bowl only moments after the Huskies took a 7-0 lead. Louisiana Tech went on to win the bowl game, 17-10.
“We need to make it more important and do some selling to the players of how important special teams is,” Kill said. “You go back to the bowl game and that’s living proof of how important it is.”
One of the other glaring miscues from the bowl game came on a punt, when Mike Salerno mishit a rugby-style punt and it went only 15 yards. With a short field, Louisiana Tech scored a touchdown to take the lead. Salerno was the second punter NIU used last season and the Huskies will have to see what junior college transfer Josh Wilber can do since senior Andy Dittbenner ran out of eligibility.
“We need to identify a punter and what he can do in order to make sure we’re better at the punting game than we were a year ago,” Kill said.
The theme from the NIU coaching staff after the bowl game was that the team needed to find a gamebreaker type of player like a Livas in order to take the next step and improve on a 6-7 record in Kill’s first season, so special teams will certainly not be the only focus of the coaching staff.
“We’ve identified five or six things at each position we need to improve on,” Kill said.
A gamebreaker type of position, running back, is an area Kill is hoping for a little bit of separation. The Huskies used five different running backs last season and quarterback Chandler Harnish ended up leading NIU in rushing.
“Would I like to have somebody step up like [former NIU running back] Garrett Wolfe did? You bet,” Kill said. “But we’ll have to see.”
Running back Ricky Crider has a pulled hamstring and will be limited at the start of spring practice. Safety and Kaneland graduate Boone Thorgesen and offensive lineman Joe Pawlak will also be limited with hamstring pulls.
Only one player will miss the spring because of injury. Linebacker and Sycamore native Kevin Sabock had offseason knee surgery after sustaining an injury during bowl practice preparation.