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Jacobs: Former walk-on Santacaterina in the mix on NIU football

Northern Illinois linebackers Boomer Mays (45) brings down Purdue running back Akeem Hunt (1) as Michael Santacaterina (7) pursues on the play during the Huskies’ 55-24 victory Saturday in West Lafayette, Ind.
Northern Illinois linebackers Boomer Mays (45) brings down Purdue running back Akeem Hunt (1) as Michael Santacaterina (7) pursues on the play during the Huskies’ 55-24 victory Saturday in West Lafayette, Ind.

Coming off an Orange Bowl appearance, the Northern Illinois football team entered the 2013 season with high expectations and, so far, the Huskies have not disappointed. They’re 4-0 and ranked 23rd in the in the coaches poll heading into their Mid-American Conference opener Saturday at Kent State.

Michael Santacaterina of Geneva has had a big hand in Northern Illinois’ early-season success – perhaps two big hands would be more accurate. The junior linebacker has used those hands to help make 28 tackles on the season, third most on the team. He’s also broken up a pair of passes and been credited with a pair of pass defenses. 

Santacaterina’s racked up those numbers despite not playing every down. He’s part of a four-man rotation at linebacker.

“I feel like I’m doing all right,” he said. “I’d like to get on the field more … [but] it’s good to have all those people and be able to rotate.”

Among the Huskies’ four wins are victories over a pair of Big Ten teams, Iowa and Purdue. 

“We’ve had some nice out-of-conference wins,” Santacaterina says. “There’s always room to improve.”

That’s particularly true on the defensive side of the football, as Northern Illinois is giving up 31 points a game. Santacaterina said the Huskies need to learn from their mistakes and match the physical play of their opponents.

Santacaterina came to DeKalb after earning accolades playing on both sides of the ball at Geneva. He gained 802 yards rushing and scored 23 touchdowns to help the Vikings reach the Class 7A state quarterfinals in 2009. Defensively, he was in on 70 tackles from his safety position, recovered a pair of fumbles and intercepted two passes. He received all-conference and all-state recognition and was named the Kane County Chronicle Player of the Year.

Those accomplishments still weren’t enough to attract much interest from NCAA Division I schools.

“When the recruiting process started, I was getting some looks from Division II schools,” Santacaterina said. “Northern came in late, around the signing date. … I ended up just walking on.”

That’s because the Huskies didn’t have a scholarship to offer him, although they suggested he might be able to earn one.

“Mainly it was [former NIU] coach [Jerry] Kill,” who influenced his decision, Santacaterina said. “I felt like he really wanted me here, he just didn’t have a scholarship available.”

Kill moved on to Minnesota after the 2010 season, but Santacaterina remains happy with his decision to join the Huskies.

“I love it here,” he said. “We’re a real tight-knit group.”

After redshirting in 2010, he played in 11 games during the 2011 season, making four starts at weak-side linebacker. He intercepted a pass against Western Michigan in his first start. He had another interception last year against Ball State that started a Northern Illinois comeback. The Huskies wound up winning the game, 35-23, one of 12 wins on the season. Their only losses were to Iowa in the season opener and Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

Santacaterina said Northern Illinois is not resting on its laurels.

“We’re moving on from last year,” he said. “It’s in the past. It’s a whole new team.”

Still, the Huskies hope to again make some history before the season is over.

“Obviously, we want to make it back to the MAC Championship and three-peat,” Santacaterina said.

The demands of playing college football at the highest level mean Santacaterina rarely has an opportunity to see his brother, Daniel, play quarterback for Geneva. A bye on the schedule the second week of the season allowed Michael to come home to watch the Vikings battle Wheaton North.

“That was only my second time seeing [Daniel play] in high school,” he said. “I wish they would have got the ‘W’.”

• Dennis D. Jacobs writes an On Campus column for Shaw Media. To suggest local college athletes deserving recognition, email him at

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