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Thanks to summer work, Huskies feel they're ahead of the game

NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish says he is more confident heading into his sophomore season. Throughout June and July, at least twice a week, Harnish and his teammates got together to work on 7-on-7 drills without the coaches.
NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish says he is more confident heading into his sophomore season. Throughout June and July, at least twice a week, Harnish and his teammates got together to work on 7-on-7 drills without the coaches.

DETROIT – As they walked across Ford Field on Thursday night, Northern Illinois University quarterback Chandler Harnish turned to Central Michigan counterpart Dan LeFevour and asked him how many times he had played on that field.

He calmly turned to Harnish and said, "I don't know, four or five times."

For the second straight year, a larger-than-life billboard of LeFevour stands on the back of Comerica Park across the street from Ford Field. And, for the second straight year, the senior and his Central Michigan Chippewas are favored to win the Mid-American Conferece West Division.

Harnish, a sophomore, sees the calmness and maturity in LeFevour's eyes and hopes that can be him soon.

"He's just got that calming factor," Harnish said. "There can be a bad play but when guys come back to the huddle they can look at him and know everything will be all right. That's my goal in the future."

Just before spring practice let out, NIU coach Jerry Kill passed out an article he found on the Boise State football team's offseason work.

The Broncos get together, without coaches, and do 11-on-11 drills on their own throughout the offseason. Then when they arrive at fall practice, they already have been working on the scheme for two months.

Harnish and his teammates took the not-so-subtle hint to heart.

Throughout June and July, at least twice a week, NIU's football team has gotten together for 7-on-7 drills.

Harnish organized the offense, senior safety David Bryant led the defense and senior guard Jason Onyebuagu led the offensive line.

"We wouldn't have any contact because we didn't use pads, but we were able to go through motions and shifts and just run through the plays that we're going to run through," Harnish said. "That really helped the young guys learn what we're trying to do offensively and the whole tempo and speed. So, when the fall comes, they're going to be ready and they'll have that base knowledge."

Bryant said the eye-popping experience of watching former teammate Larry English getting drafted at No. 16 by the San Diego Chargers influenced him.

It proved that any player, from any school, can get that attention if they are playing at the right level. So, after spending a week at home in St. Louis and a week with friend's in Miami, Bryant ended his summer vacation much earlier than he has in the past so he could get back for 7-on-7 work.

"It's my last year and I needed to put more into it," Bryant said.

Kill said the summer work was a sign that his team is starting to understand the coaching staff's expectations, and it will pay off in the fall. Over the summer, each freshman was assigned a big brother on the team to ensure they were progressing.

"This summer, Chandler and our quarterbacks took the next step for our program," Kill said. "Maybe the Boise State article had to do with it, maybe it was because Chandler was a year older.

"We're so far ahead of what we were a year ago. We're going to be able to work faster on the fundamentals and move forward."

As his confidence has grown, Harnish sees his teammates beginning to follow his lead more and more. And the difference even can be seen in the way the ball flies out of his hand.

"I'm able to put a lot more touch on my passes and throw a cleaner ball and I think that comes from confidence in where you're going to go with the ball," Harnish said.

"If you get nervous, you're going to grip that ball tighter and you throw a wobbly ball and, a lot of times, it's not accurate.

"[The game] really has slowed down for me and I'm able to see the wider gaze, like [quarterbacks] coach [Pat] Poore says. I'm not anywhere near where I want to be, I just want to get better, but I'm definitely happy with how I've played."

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