VIEWS: What to watch for during NIU preseason camp
At 3:15 p.m. today at Huskie Stadium, Northern Illinois will hold its first fall practice. Friday, the team will practice in pads, and coach Dave Doeren’s squad holds its first scrimmage Saturday morning.
All 24 practices will prepare the Huskies for their season opener Sept. 1 against Iowa.
For the first time since 1984, the Huskies enter the season as defending Mid-American Conference champions. The season’s goal is another MAC title, which isn’t going to be easy in a league that has strength and depth, particularly in the West Division.
Many familiar faces from last season are gone. Quarterback Chandler Harnish. Running back Jasmin Hopkins. Scott Wedige and Trevor Olson from a strong offensive line.
Matt Canada is now the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin. Linebacker Pat Schiller is trying to make the Atlanta Falcons roster. Wide receiver Nathan Palmer and his 47 catches are in San Francisco 49ers camp.
Yet, there are a lot of positives that fans can look forward to heading into the season.
Doeren is no longer a rookie, beginning his second season as coach with a year of experience and a conference title under his belt. Starting quarterback Jordan Lynch had a good spring and will be expected to take the reins of the offense. A defense that cost NIU at times last season could be a strength in 2012. Tyrone Clark, NIU’s defensive MVP in 2010, is back after a yearlong suspension.
But there’s also cause for concern. In less than a month, we’ll know more.
Here are five things I have my eye on heading into fall camp.
1. The offensive line
Just one starter from last season returns – senior Logan Pegram. He’s going through a position change, moving to center after starting 22 games at guard the past two years.
With four starters needing to be replaced, expect to see a lot of players such as tackle Tyler Loos, who missed spring practice recovering from a torn ACL, guards Andrew Ness, Tyler Pitt, Aidan Conlon and Matthew Killian, as well as tackle Matt Krempel. None of those players has started a game.
Sure, NIU had strong skill position players in Harnish, Hopkins and Palmer last year, not to mention returning wideouts Perez Ashford and Martel Moore. Those guys were also helped out by a line that allowed just 12 sacks in 14 games.
2. Will anyone step up at running back?
NIU had an impressive streak from 1999-2007, having a 1,000-yard rusher every season. In 2008, that streak was broken. In 2009, Chad Spann began another 1,000-yard streak for the Huskies, rushing for 1,038 yards. He followed that up with a 1,388-yard campaign the next season.
Last year, Harnish ran for 1,379 yards, making it 12 out of 13 seasons NIU has finished with a 1,000-yard runner.
Will NIU have a tailback step up, grab the job and run with it? There is no definite starter heading into camp, with juniors Akeem Daniels and Leighton Settle and senior Jamal Womble listed at the top of the depth chart.
In terms of keeping that streak going, Lynch churning out a 1,000-yard season isn’t out of the question. In April, Doeren said Lynch is faster than Harnish and has “home-run ability” running the ball.
3. Defense a strength?
Although things got better as the season went on, the Huskies gave up 30.3 points a game last year. This season, NIU’s defenders might not have an explosive offense to bail them out.
The Huskies will need the unit that showed up the final three games of 2011 to help carry more of the load in 2012. There is talent, with players such as defensive ends Sean Progar and Alan Baxter, cornerbacks Rashaan Melvin and Jhony Faustin, linebacker Jamaal Bass, nose guard Nabal Jefferson and safeties Dechane Durante, Demetrius Stone and Jimmie Ward returning. All are players who started last year and again are expected to see significant action. And there is Clark, who is expected to step in at outside linebacker.
4. Jordan Lynch is the starting quarterback. But what does NIU have after him?
Lynch, a junior, saw some time last season and led NIU on a touchdown drive during the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
The Huskies look to be in good hands the next two seasons with Lynch at quarterback. But what if he goes down for a game? What if he can’t play for three games, or is out for an extended period of time?
Backup Matt McIntosh is a redshirt freshman and looked shaky at times during spring practice. After him, there are three true freshmen – Johnny Eagan, Drew Hare and Geneva product Matt Williams. I would think that in a perfect world, Doeren would like to redshirt all three of them.
That could change if NIU is hit by the injuries at quarterback.
5. How strong will special teams be?
How good is Tommylee Lewis? The sophomore averaged 25.2 yards a return on kickoffs as a true freshman last season. I don’t need to go into his performance against Toledo.
This year, he’s listed as the punt returner on the preseason depth chart, in addition to his kickoff duties. He’ll also see more time at wide receiver.
Kicker Mathew Sims struggled as NIU’s part-time kicker as a freshman. Last season, he took a gigantic step forward, finishing second in the MAC in field goal percentage at 71.4, converting 20 of 28 attempts.
The biggest one of those kicks was his 33-yarder as time expired that beat Ohio in the MAC Championship Game.
I’m sure the Huskies will be happy if he has similar late-season heroics in 2012.
• Steve Nitz is a sports reporter for the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @SNitz_DDC.
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