DeKALB – Panan Tense doesn’t remember a moment or exact day it happened, but at some point during Independence Bowl practice, something changed.
A backup guard for Northern Illinois before the bowl, Tense knew what was at stake during those first few weeks practicing indoors at the DeKalb Sports and Recreation Center.
With guard Dan Keller and tackle Jon Brost graduating, the Huskies would have to replace the right side of their line in 2009. Tense played three games this past season and didn’t see the field in the final six games.
But bowl practice, especially the first week when coaches let the veterans go early to start their evaluations for this upcoming season, was Tense’s chance to prove himself.
“It helped me out a lot actually,” Tense said. “That extra month of practice, for some reason it just clicked for me during the bowl and I showed the coaches I could do it and get a shot at starting right now.”
He wasn’t the only one who impressed the coaches. Kevin Skatrud, who started the first three games at left guard, then slowly dropped out of the rotation, not even playing the final two games of the year, saw it as another chance, this time at right tackle.
“Just building my confidence back up after not starting [at the end of] last year,” Skatrud said.
Seven practices into spring football, Tense and Skatrud are holding onto the top spots at right guard and right tackle, in two position battles that won’t see a winner until possibly late in fall camp.
“That’s probably something you’re going to be asking me all the way until we get on the bus to go to (NIU’s first opponent) Wisconsin,” NIU offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Matt Limegrover said.
It’s an open competition at both positions, and Skatrud is being pushed for the job by Adam Kiel, who said he needs to work on his pass blocking to become a more complete tackle.
“It’s not a natural position to go backwards,” Kiel said. “I’m working on that and working on my technique.”
Tense said the changes in his game that he started to notice in bowl practice carried over to the spring. The mental aspect of understanding a blocking call a little bit quicker have put him ahead of where he was last season.
“It’s just thinking on the fly,” Tense said. “You know a play when it starts, but after it starts or when it changes, you’ve got to be able to react.”
Limegrover said he’s been happy with how Tense and Skatrud work together despite not starting together.
Although it’s been a big transition for Skatrud to go from left guard to right tackle – “you’re on more of an island,” Skatrud said – the two have worked well together in part because of Skatrud’s knowledge of playing guard.
“I used to play guard so I know what he’s thinking most of the time and he kind of knows what I’m thinking and we communicate really well,” Skatrud said.
What we saw
With some spots up in the air, this week we’ll be taking a look at some of the position battles that have started this spring and likely will continue through the fall.
Senior Brandon Bice, a third-team All-MAC selection this past season, probably will see the most snaps at this point and I would say is locked into a starting job at defensive end. Bice was a pleasant surprise last season for the Huskies, when he had 22 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
The other defensive end position has junior Jake Coffman, redshirt freshman Sean Progar-Jackson, junior Kyle Jenkins and senior Darnell Bolding all pushing each other for playing time, likely in that order. Progar-Jackson ran with the No. 1 defense this morning, but Coffman has been there for the majority of the spring. Coffman played well at the Independence Bowl (two tackles and a sack) and is trying to build off that.
For more, plus a video interview with defensive tackle D.J. Pirkle, check out daily-chronicle.com/blogs/huskie_wire/