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Jimmie Ward leads NIU’s strongest unit

CHICAGO – Northern Illinois football coach Rod Carey wasn’t shy about calling his secondary the strength of the Huskies’ defense at Wednesday’s Chicago Media Day.

“We have Sean Evans and Jimmie Ward here with us today, they will certainly speak to you on that. That’s an expectation,” Carey told a crowded room of reporters at Mike Ditka’s restaurant. “You’ve got those two guys back there, you have Dechane Durante, you have Marlon Moore, you have Marckie Hayes. I could go on, I’m sure I’m going to miss a few.

“You’re going to see all of them, because they’re all too good not to be on the field, and they’re going to push each other.”

Evans, who started four games at cornerback last season, including the Mid-American Conference Championship and Orange Bowl, agreed with Carey’s assessment, mentioning the talent and experience of the secondary.

“We’ve been groomed to be a good secondary just from the foundation (defensive coordinator Jay) Niemann and (former cornerbacks coach Richard) McNutt previously laid down for us,” Evans said. “This is really our opportunity and our time to step up and lead the defense.”

Ward, who has 25 career starts, paused for a couple seconds when he was asked if his unit is indeed the strength of the defense. But he agreed with Carey, and mentioned how good the defense could be overall, with the team’s depth at linebacker and the playmakers on the defensive line.

“We’ve got a lot of DBs that can cover, cover a lot of ground,” Ward said. “A lot of games we play man coverage, we like to shut down wide receivers, I think that’s a positive. One important thing, being on defense, you’ve got to tackle, I think our coaches emphasize that a lot.”

NIU ranked 13th in the nation in pass-efficiency defense last year (108.54), and there’s returning talent in the defensive backfield. Ward, a first-team All-MAC selection in 2012, and Durante, a junior safety who started seven games before missing time because of injury, both return. Evans started the MAC title game and Marlon Moore had six starts at corner as a true freshman, while fellow cornerback Jhony Faustin started 10 games in 2011.

Experience and depth aren’t an issue in the Huskies’ defensive backfield.

“Because there’s such competition just with the guys that have played, I think they all elevated their game,” Carey said. “You take a guy like Jhony Faustin, a starter in 2011. He had a great spring because he wants to get back on the field, it’s his senior year.”

Of course, one guy not coming back is corner Rashaan Melvin, who now is in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ training camp.

Ward said Melvin was someone who knew what was going on. If Ward messed up a call, Melvin got him on the right track.

This season, Carey wants everyone in the secondary to be that leader, and Ward is ready.

“Having that guy on the field that knows everything that’s supposed to happen, it’s a positive,” Ward said. “I’ve got to step up and be more vocal before I can get the young kids on the same page.”

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