DeKALB – Anyone who’s seen Chad Spann tote the pigskin knows the Northern Illinois senior is a tough tailback to bring down.
But even Huskies coach Jerry Kill was bowled over watching Spann bust through Minnesota defenders, toss Gophers with a stiff-arm punch and even drag a defender into the end zone during a career performance (223 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries) in Saturday’s 34-23 win over Minnesota.
“I just think he’s a stronger, more physical back,” Kill said. “He seems to be breaking a lot more tackles than he did a year ago. He just had one of those games at Minnesota. He got the ball and took advantage of the opportunities he was given.”
Spann, who with 458 yards is the No. 11 rusher in the Football Bowl Subdivision, had plenty of time to focus on getting stronger during the offseason as he sat out spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum. Despite the injury, Spann was able to lift weights under supervision from NIU strength coach Eric Klein.
The work has paid off as Spann was named Mid-American Conference West Division Offensive Player of the Week and Walter Camp Football Foundation Player of the Week following the first 200-yard rushing performance of his career.
“I definitely feel stronger,” Spann said. “I made that a priority this offseason to get stronger coming off the injury that I did last season. It’s really developed. You can really see the difference from this year to last year.”
But Spann doesn’t take all the credit for his big night in Minneapolis. Not with the wide running lanes his offensive line created. On his longest three carries of the night (runs of 61, 56 and 33 yards), Spann wasn’t touched by a defender within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.
“Coming into the season, we had a couple questions about our offensive line,” said Spann, referring to a group with three different starters than 2009.
“I think this game does more for them than it does for myself. For me to dish out a 200-yard game, I think that’s really going to help their confidence and get their playing level up.”
And Spann wasn’t the only NIU back to take advantage of the offensive line’s most dominating performance of the young season. Cameron Bell, a 6-foot-2, 242-pound junior, had his first significant impact as a Huskie, rushing for 36 yards, including a 29-yard scamper. Senior Ricky Crider added 33 yards on two carries, highlighted by a 30-yard run.
With junior college transfer Jasmin Hopkins (106 total yards) also making an impact, Kill will continue to use all four in his running back stable as well as quarterback Chandler Harnish (330 rushing yards), a trait Spann said helps NIU keep a defense on its toes.
But if a stronger Spann continues to plow through defenses like last Saturday, Kill’s not afraid to continue to feed his senior standout with a majority of the carries.
“If you get a running back that’s playing very well and gets hot, you’re going to stay with that guy,” Kill said. “A lot of times in the first half, we’ll play two or three different combinations but if we get someone that’s hot, we’re certainly going to ride him for a while.”