DeKALB – Sycamore receiver and safety Ben Niemann sat in front of his teammates behind the north end zone at Huskie Stadium during halftime of the Spartans’ 48-26 win over DeKalb, gleaning whatever he could from his coaches, who drew on a whiteboard while detailing how the Spartans would stop the Barbs’ potent run game and control the ball on offense.
That 20-minute spell was the only time the Iowa verbal commit would sit all game.
Aside from the halftime respite, and a few seconds during kickoffs, Sycamore punts and extra points were all the time Niemann had to talk to teammates, receive advice from coaches and take a few sips of water. And the senior likes it that way.
“I like defense just as much as offense, so I’m happy I get to play both ways,” Niemann said. “Everything’s kind of just on the fly. You’ve got to pick stuff up quick, and my teammates do a good job of communicating with me. It can be tough at times, but we find ways to get it done.”
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound senior is simply too talented to leave off the field.
In the first half, Niemann did what he does best on offense, showing off his Division I athleticism by grabbing three catches for 139 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran down DeKalb’s Division I prospect, running back Dre Brown, on a long run just yards before the end zone in the second quarter.
With less than four minutes left in the first quarter, Niemann leapt over two DeKalb defensive backs to grab a 53-yard pass from quarterback Devin Mottet, shaking off a tackle to make his way into the end zone. His second touchdown came minutes later, when he grabbed a short pass, broke a tackle and sprinted to the end zone for a 69-yard reception.
“He’s a big receiver and I can count on – no matter what coverage he’s in, double or triple– he’ll go up and get it,” Mottet said. “Or if he can’t get it, he’ll knock it down. I just trust him no matter what. It’s great to have him out there. He’s a great weapon.”
Niemann didn’t catch a pass in the second half, but that didn’t mean he didn’t affect the game. The Spartans ran for 291 yards Friday and controlled the clock with a lead in the second half. The attention Niemann drew, coach Joe Ryan said, had plenty to do with Sycamore’s ability to run the ball.
“Even when he’s not catching the ball, they’re rotating coverages and he’s helping our running game,” Ryan said. “He’s involved with it because of alignment. They have to align over toward him a little bit because they don’t know when we’re going to throw it to him.”
Niemann isn’t the type to yell at teammates, to involve himself with altercations or to gripe about not being thrown to. He’s not a rah-rah leader, though he says his peace when needed.
So when the Spartans took a commanding lead in the second half, leaving Niemann to line up out wide to effectively create a diversion, he didn’t complain or feel left out.
“If we’re going to put up points like that, it’s great,” he said. “If I’m not getting the ball, it’s just what’s best for the team. It’s not hard for me to stay engaged.”
Aside from his size, leaping ability, speed and overall athleticism, Ryan said that’s what makes Niemann great. He’s an intelligent player who understands his role. And even on a day when he only catches three passes and makes a few tackles, he can be the most effective player on the field.
“He’s not the type of person that goes, ‘I’ve got to have 10 catches or I have to have this or I have to have that,’ ” Ryan said. “He understands what’s going on. He’s football savvy, and he understands what we’re trying to accomplish.
“Starting from his sophomore year, he wasn’t sure he was a great player. Now I think he realizes it without letting everybody know other than by his play. He just plays really hard and he’s a great player. He doesn’t run his mouth, he doesn’t try to tell everybody he’s a great player, he just goes out and shows he’s a great player.”