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Passing the torch: Harnish ready to take reins as NIU’s leader

Caption
Northern Illinois’ quarterback Chandler Harnish (12) follows through on a pass during the first day of spring practices on Tuesday at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb. Beck Diefenbach – bdiefenbach@daily-chronicle.com

DeKALB – Larry English left one last gift for Northern Illinois football before he hung up his jersey for the last time.

English and quarterback Chandler Harnish sat in the locker room after the Huskies lost, 17-10, to Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl, waiting to go to the postgame news conference. Harnish, now the sophomore quarterback for the Huskies, replayed in his mind the mistakes that led to the loss when English had something to say to the young quarterback.

“He just pulls me aside and real monotone, real low-key he just told me, ‘You need to take over the team. This is your team,’ ” Harnish said.

The weight of the words from the future NFL defender took about a few weeks to settle in with Harnish.

Where English went last season, so did the rest of the team. Now he seemingly was passing on that responsibility to Harnish.

As the first day of spring football began at Huskie Stadium on Tuesday morning, Harnish took the first on-field step to try to live up to English’s words.

The quarterback’s confidence at this point isn’t lacking.

“I honestly feel like this is my team,” Harnish said. “I’ve told my friends. I’ve told my parents. I’ve told my family. I feel like this is my job to lead this team. The quarterback is the leader, it’s just the way it is.

“We need somebody to step up and someone to step up now.”

Off the field, it appears Harnish already has made strides in that department.

Harnish said he and the rest of the quarterbacks and wide receivers spent three nights a week between January and Tuesday at Chick Evans Field House on campus, usually starting at 9 or 10 p.m., throwing all of the routes in NIU’s playbook, including more over the middle, which Harnish said he was happy to see.

“We had two open courts and we were able to run all of our deep routes so we got a lot of work done,” Harnish said. “We’ve put a lot more into our pass game. We threw boundary-to-boundary a lot last year. It’s easy to see we need to run more middle routes. We feel like that’s really going to develop.”

Offense isn’t the only side of the ball that’s noticed the extra work and increased confidence.

“He never comes in shy, even when he came in last year,” linebacker Alex Kube said. “He comes in and says ‘This is my team’ and I like that about him. That’s one of my favorite things about him.”

While away from the field Harnish receives praise for his initiative, it remains to be seen if it will translate to a better second season.

Harnish impressed at the start of the season with a 326-yard passing performance at Minnesota, but was gassed by the end of the season, when the Huskies lost four of their last five games, including the bowl.

“We asked Chandler to do way too much a year ago,” NIU coach Jerry Kill said. “We need some guys to step up and make some plays and help him.”

Harnish ended the season as NIU’s leading passer and rusher.

“I feel like that’s not a good sign,” he said. “I feel like if we can keep our running backs going and keep me from running as much as possible that’s the best case scenario.”

In his second season, Harnish will have to limit his turnovers. He threw nine interceptions to eight touchdowns.

“I made a goal chart [Monday,]” Harnish said. “I want to limit my interceptions to no more than four for any drill. I don’t want to fumble the ball. No mental errors.”

In the meantime, he’ll keep English’s words in the back of his mind.

“Hopefully I can be as good as him,” Harnish said.

What we saw
One of the topics of conversation from the offseason was the enrollment of Miles Smith. Smith, the son of Bears coach Lovie Smith, was a preferred walk-on linebacker at Missouri before enrolling this winter at NIU. Now, it appears Miles Smith wants to get an early jump-start on his own coaching career, as he is a volunteer assistant in the football operations office.

“It’s good,” NIU coach Jerry Kill said. “He’s a student and it gives him a chance to be a part of the game.”

NIU also has a few position changes. Fullback Victor Jacques now will try linebacker, but Kill hasn’t ruled out a return to fullback. Kill was high on Jacques before last season, but Kyle Skarb and Connor Flahive emerged ahead of Jacques. Defensive backs Spencer Williamson and David Pratt have moved to linebacker.

Check out the full practice report atdaily-chronicle.com/blogs/huskie_wire/

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