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NIU's Lynch learns under Harnish, gets his chance

Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch  looks to pass Oct. 12 during the first half against Akron in DeKalb. Lynch is one of six Heisman Trophy finalists invited to Monday's ceremony.
Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch looks to pass Oct. 12 during the first half against Akron in DeKalb. Lynch is one of six Heisman Trophy finalists invited to Monday's ceremony.

Note to readers: This is the second of a three-part series on Jordan Lynch's evolution into a Heisman Trophy finalist.

Northern Illinois’ coaching staff had to get Jordan Lynch on the field.

Some way, somehow.

Former head coach Jerry Kill and his assistants saw the athleticism Lynch provided. They knew he’d be able to help them out in 2010, when Lynch was a redshirt freshman after sitting out all of 2009.

The problem was, the Huskies already had junior Chandler Harnish under center, and he was no slouch by any means.

But the coaching staff figured why not put Lynch on the field and give Harnish a break?

Lynch, a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, which will be presented in New York City on Saturday, had only one FBS offer to play quarterback, and it was with the Huskies.

If it didn’t work out, Lynch had the opportunity to move to safety.

However, Jerry Kill was not ready to make that decision three years ago.

“I think he could be special. There’s something there. I’ve got to see what this spring [brings], but there’s something there,” Kill told the Daily Chronicle in the spring of 2010. “Our defensive staff will tell you that. I’m excited about watching him play. It’s easy to do it as a freshman and he didn’t get tons of reps, but the reps he got, he can make some plays.”

Lynch, who started the 2010 season behind Harnish and DeMarcus Grady on the depth chart, was used because the staff thought he was too athletic not to be on the field. It was also an opportunity to give Harnish a break here and there.

He had his first carries of his Huskie career against Akron on Oct. 2, 2010, recording just a yard on two carries. But a week later against Buffalo, Lynch had 96 rushing yards on two carries, including a 90-yard touchdown scamper, the first of a career that has produced 98 total touchdowns with one game remaining.

Lynch was a nice complement to Harnish that season, running 31 times for 362 yards.

“My initial thought was, tremendous runner, physical,” said Jim Zebrowski, who was Lynch’s position coach in 2010 and has been on Kill’s staff at Minnesota the past three seasons. “What he’s doing now, you knew he could. You never knew to what extreme, he’s off the charts right now.”

In 2011, Harnish was still the starter for NIU and would go on to win the Vern Smith Leadership Award as the Mid-American Conference MVP, an honor Lynch himself has earned the past two seasons. Lynch would spell Harnish at times once again, finishing the year with 45 carries for 246 yards and three touchdowns. He was also 15 of 20 passing for 166 yards and a touchdown.

The Huskies, blessed with multiple options, had a good situation with Lynch and Harnish, who’s currently on the Indianapolis Colts practice squad.

Zebrowski’s initial observations of Lynch were how competitive he was, and how much he enjoyed playing football, which showed even when Lynch, who obviously had the talent to be the starter, was stuck in a reserve role for two seasons.

“We had a great group of kids. Jordan was just as happy if Chandler made a run or if he made a run,” Zebrowski said. “He was so well-coached and well-raised by his family that [a negative attitude] wasn’t part of his DNA.”

Eventually, Lynch got his chance to shine for the Huskies in the Bowl against Arkansas State in Jan. 2012.

Harnish was sidelined with an ankle injury during the second quarter, and Lynch took the reins for a short period, leading NIU on a 78-yard, go-ahead touchdown drive. Lynch showed off his arm down, going 4 of 4 through the air for 64 yards. The touchdown drive, which gave the Huskies a 14-13 advantage, culminated in a 3-yard touchdown run by Lynch and the Huskies would go on to win, 38-20.

It was a sign of things to come when Harnish moved on to the NFL and Lynch was named the starter by Dave Doeren before spring practice in 2012.

“It was really beneficial,” Lynch said of his playing experience of 2010 and 2011. “Overall the experience, and getting thrown in live situations, that really helped me. Really had some experience going into the next year and I really knew what to expect.”

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