DeKALB – Luke Shively just needed to chill out.
After taking over as the starting center for the Northern Illinois football team last year as a sophomore, Shively initially struggled with allowing himself to get too hyped up during the game. Now a junior and entering the spring as the prospective second-year starter in the middle of the offensive line, Shively said his approach to the game has been calmer.
“Honestly, the pace of the game was different,” Shively said when asked about what he didn’t expect after taking over as the starting center. “Practice is a little different. Practice is a little faster, and once I got in the games, it was hard for me to slow down. It sounds backwards, but it was hard for me to slow down because I was so ready to go and so hyped up. I had some time to chill out and focus on my calls. That was the biggest difference.”
After playing seven games as a redshirt freshman in 2015 behind four-year starter Andrew Ness, Shively took over the starting job and played in all 12 games. He was a part of a line that provided the blocking for a running game that averaged a conference-best 266.4 yards during Mid-American Conference games and allowed only three sacks in eight conference games – also the best in the MAC.
“Comfort making the calls, I think that’s the biggest thing that you see,” NIU coach Rod Carey said about what he’s seen from Shively this spring. “There’s no panic, where there may have been some last year.”
NIU offensive line coach Joe Tripodi said part of Shively’s growth has been the ability to move on from negative plays and not let them affect the next play.
“Being a first-year starter, you learn that the more you play – O-line is kind of a boring position,” Tripodi said. “It’s really repetitive. The more you play, the more you realize to let things go and play the next play.”
The 6-foot-2, 286-pound Shively said there were times early in the season opener against Wyoming – his first collegiate start – that he would be too hyped up running to the ball in between plays and needed to tell himself to calm down. In a sport seen as violent and fast-paced, Shively said there is a serenity to it as well.
“Football isn’t known to be a chill game, but there’s some tranquility in it at times,” Shively said. “It’s you and the field, and it’s you and the defense. I’m not thinking about anything else. It’s just one thing and go do that thing. There’s times when it slows down mentally. Personally, when I’m playing my best football is when I’m locked in and doing one thing. In the end, it’s a game. I look at it as a game – I take it seriously, but you have to have some fun with it, too.”
Shively is one of three returning starters on the offensive line, with redshirt sophomore Jordan Steckler (6-foot-4, 311 pounds) and junior Max Scharping (6-foot-6, 312 pounds) anchoring the left side. Scharping, who was named a FWAA Freshman All-American in 2015 and first team all-MAC in 2016, moved over to left tackle from right tackle for the Huskies.
“It’s the same plays. It’s just readjusting your feet,” Scharping said. “My hips are a little bit tighter, and it’s just making sure I get enough reps in that I feel comfortable.”
Tripodi cited Scharping’s intelligence for his ability to handle the mental challenge of moving positions and that “everything’s really come easy to him.”
For the offensive line as a whole, Carey said there has been some inconsistencies, saying they aren’t in sync up as a unit yet. Tripodi said there still is competition for playing time on the right side, with Ryan Roberts (6-foot-6, 297 pounds) taking most of the first-string reps at right tackle and true freshman Isaac Hawn (6-foot-6, 302 pounds) from St. Charles North battling. At right guard, junior Shane Evans (6-foot-4, 304 pounds), junior Dale Brown (6-foot-3, 307 pounds) and redshirt freshman Brayden Patton (6-foot-4, 304 pounds) are among the group competing for the spot.
“I tell the guys it’s like a battle royal. The competition is good,” Tripodi said.
However, the Huskies don’t have a senior offensive lineman on the roster, and with position changes and trying to find a lineup, the consistency problems have been seen from the junior center, too.
“That’s ones, twos and threes,” Shively said. “It’s a different group. Every year, every spring comes a different group. We’ve taken a little longer to mesh – we still haven’t meshed completely yet. I think it’s each group, we’re struggling to mesh as an entire group and that’s cost us as a squad.”