Two years ago the big question was, how would Northern Illinois replace Chandler Harnish?
When Harnish, now on the Indianapolis Colts practice squad, finished his Huskies career, it seemed like a tall task.
Harnish left big shoes to fill after the 2011 season. He was a four-year starter for the Huskies and won the 2011 Mid-American Conference MVP award before being taken by Indianapolis with the final pick of the 2012 NFL Draft, becoming “Mr. Irrelevant.” He set 30 school records in DeKalb.
Jordan Lynch was the answer to that question, and then some. Lynch, who will play his final college game in today’s Poinsettia Bowl, has won the past two Vern Smith Leadership Awards as the MAC MVP. He finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy balloting in 2012 and took third this season.
Harnish, who watched Lynch work for three seasons, isn’t exactly shocked.
“Everybody could tell this kid was primed for success,” Harnish told the Daily Chronicle. “Now, I didn’t know he was going to be as excellent as he has been. I knew he’d be a great leader, tough kid.”
Tonight, when Lynch takes the field at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, it most likely will be the end of an era in NIU history.
A very, very good era. A quality one that hasn’t been seen in the MAC since Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich at Marshall in the early 2000s.
Although Harnish was a starter for four seasons, the Lynch era very easily could have started earlier than it did, according to Harnish.
In 2010, DeMarcus Grady started NIU’s season opener at Iowa State. After he threw three interceptions, Harnish, who sat out the spring of 2010 with a knee injury and was in a battle for the starting spot during camp, took over for the Huskies’ home opener against North Dakota.
Harnish didn’t realize it at the time, but while talking with former NIU quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski, who now holds the same position at Minnesota, after the end of his career, Harnish found out there was a chance Lynch was going to take the reigns if Harnish were to falter that week.
NIU won, 22-15, with Harnish throwing for 146 yards and a touchdown and running for another 178 yards and a score.
“[Zebrowski] said there was a lot riding on that start. If I didn’t play well, they were probably going to move on to Jordan, and that would have been the end of my career,” Harnish said. “I’m glad I didn’t know that because I’m glad I didn’t put too much pressure on myself.”
The rest is history.
Harnish helped lead NIU to the MAC Championship Game in 2010 and was behind center in 2011 when NIU won its first conference title since 1983.
Lynch got his chance, helping the Huskies to the Orange Bowl in 2012 and to the brink of another BCS bowl berth this year before the upset loss against Bowling Green in the MAC title game.
And, Lynch was groomed in 2010 and 2011. The coaching staff just wanted to get Lynch on the field, so he would spell Harnish at times. Lynch ran for 362 yards and three touchdowns in 2010 and 246 yards and three scores in 2011. In the GoDaddy.com Bowl in January of 2012, Lynch led the Huskies on a go-ahead touchdown drive when Harnish was out with an injury, finishing it off with a 3-yard score.
Harnish admits that he’s a player who never wants to come out of the game. But, when the staff decided to use Lynch, he had no problem with it because of the type of person Lynch is.
“Jordan would always come in and be very successful,” Harnish said. “As a coach, it’s not hard to put him in the game sometimes because he makes plays. When his time came to take over the team he ran with it.”
When Lynch was on the sideline, on the practice field, in the weight room or the film room, he was able to sit back and learn from Harnish.
“Just his leadership skills on and off the field,” Lynch said. “He was always doing the right thing. He really helped me out, just the ins and outs of things.”
Even though Lynch was plenty talented enough to start, Harnish said there never was a problem in their relationship.
“We never wavered. We were always very close, supportive of each other,” Harnish said. “We always had a great time, a lot of laughs.”
During Harnish’s freshman year in 2007, he learned from Dan Nicholson and Ryan Morris. Harnish said players will follow the veterans and upper classmen as long as they respect them. Harnish respected the players ahead of him, and it was the same with Lynch and Harnish.
“I flocked to [Nicholson]; I learned from him,” Harnish said. “He’s an NIU Huskie at heart, too. A lot of the credit has to go to those guys before us.”
Harnish said Lynch was always “great” about everything when he was the backup. He said Lynch’s entire class never called themselves backups. They were always the “1.5s.”
Now, Lynch is helping to groom the next Huskies quarterback. He’s been working with sophomore Matt McIntosh and redshirt freshman Drew Hare, who have been studying under him this season while waiting for their chance. Both have gotten some playing time in blowout games this season.
“Just being there for those guys. Watching extra film with them,” Lynch said. “If they have questions, just be there, because [Harnish] was there for me and it really helped out.”
How can one of them replace Lynch? Replacing a player who was just voted the third-best player in the country is a tough thing to do.
At the same time, two seasons ago, everyone had those same questions about Lynch replacing Harnish.