DeKALB – Northern Illinois drew plenty of attention because of Jordan Lynch and the Huskies’ high-powered offense during their 24-4 run over the past few seasons.
Deservedly so. Lynch set numerous records during his two years as NIU’s starter and the Huskies’ attack lit up scoreboards, culminating in Lynch being named a Heisman Trophy finalist last year.
But what about NIU’s defense? Two seasons ago when the Huskies earned their Orange Bowl berth, they finished 21st in the nation in points allowed at 19.9 a game, second in the Mid-American Conference.
Last season, NIU’s defense wasn’t as solid, finishing 52nd in the country in scoring defense (25.1 points a game), as the MAC Championship loss to Bowling Green in which NIU gave up 47 points definitely didn’t help.
Three players who started the Orange Bowl – safety Jimmie Ward (San Francisco 49ers), defensive tackle Ken Bishop (Cowboys) and cornerback Rashaan Melvin (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) were on NFL rosters as of Aug. 15. Ward was selected by San Francisco with the 30th overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, becoming the second first-round pick in school history after the San Diego Chargers selected Larry English in 2008.
The defense has come a long way since 2011, when NIU gave up 30.3 points a game (a total which ranked 85th in the country) in defensive coordinator Jay Niemann’s first season running the defense.
Niemann is entering his fourth season, and there’s a familiarity with his system.
“Our teaching progression, that’s why we have the ability to plug new guys in like we did last year, like we’re doing this year, and not have much of a learning curve because the system is set, because Jay’s leading it, along with Kevin (Kane) and Brett (Diersen) and Sigs (Kelvin Sigler),” said NIU coach Rod Carey, mentioning the other assistants on the defensive staff. “This is their Year 2 (for Diersen and Sigler) but Kevin and Jay have been together for four years. That’s a huge deal.”
Niemann said he’s tweaked different things, but his philosophy and plan is still the same.
“I think it’s a product of all those things along with good recruiting, and just everybody moving forward with the same golden aspirations,” he said.
Niemann said one reason for the Huskies’ early defensive struggles in 2011 – NIU improved at the end of the year, giving up just more than 17 points a game the final three contests of the season – was his players getting used to what he calls a pretty intricate system with checks based on formations that took awhile to get down.
“I think that had a lot to do with our early struggles in our first year. We got better and better as we went along,” Niemann said. “It’s painful sometimes to go through, it’s just a process that takes time. Hopefully we’re on top of it now, I think if we look at here we are today after 12 or 13 practices compared to last year, even with a really young secondary that’s very involved in those adjustments, I think we’re on pace to be where we want to be.”
Gone from last year’s team are Ward, who had the rare corner and safety skills, and Bishop, a key component of the defensive line. Not to mention pass rusher Joe Windsor.
This season, players like defensive ends Perez Ford and Jason Meehan will be counted on in the defensive line, while linebackers Jamaal Bass and Boomer Mays are the veterans. The Sporting News ranked safety Dechane Durante as the league’s best NFL prospect.
“For the most part, we have lots of guys that have been in the system for awhile now,” Bass said. “We really know the system front and back, so just that gel that we have with each other. We know how each other play so that plays a lot on us.”
Niemann’s philosophy is to rush four players, avoid blitzing and cover with seven. Some years, he’s going to have to blitz more than he wants to depending on personnel, and said the Huskies have been fortunate to be able to rush four for the most part.
This year, NIU will count on players like Ford, Meehan, Austin Smaha at end and Donovan Gordon, Corey Thomas and Michael Ippolito at defensive tackle to take pressure off of a secondary which could see some true freshmen get time.
“Good defensive backs that can cover people, I think that’s a key to our defense,” Durante said. “Coach Niemann, he wants to get up in guys’ faces, not let them throw the ball around. I think just a good secondary and players who want to get to the ball, make tackles, that’s all it really is.”
Ward was obviously a huge part of last year’s team, but he’s competing on Sundays this year. However, there’s plenty of players who will have the chance to step into a familiar scheme and make an impact.
“I think as the years went on, us just playing, things got easier for us,” Durante said. “We just want to get more aggressive and get better, and better. And that’s what we did, coming in game after game each week.”