DeKALB – At the beginning of the Northern Illinois football team’s spring season, the question was whether junior Ryan Graham or sophomore Daniel Santacaterina would be the starting quarterback.
Now redshirt freshman Marcus Childers has barged his way into the conversation.
The Huskies wrapped up their spring season with their 15th practice in lieu of the Huskie Bowl on a sunny Saturday afternoon, and the quarterback question is muddled as ever with three of them taking snaps with the first-string offense.
“That’s going to take care of itself,” NIU coach Rod Carey said. “You don’t want to play three guys there, two guys there – you want to play one. That one guy will rear his head. He hasn’t yet. It’s been a good back and forth between the top three guys.”
NIU quarterbacks coach Craig Harmon said that Childers has had a strong final two weeks of the spring season, and things are starting to click for the 6-foot, 229-pound redshirt freshman from Adairsville, Georgia. Childers started the spring working with the second-string offense, while Graham and Santacaterina split time with the first string.
In Saturday’s practice, which had a crowd of fans on hand, Childers got the most time with the first string.
“He moves the chains,” Carey said. “When you’re talking about a redshirt freshman who hasn’t played in a game yet, that’s a pretty impressive thing when you’re running with the ones, to keep the chains moving.”
Although Childers hasn’t had any game experience for the Huskies, both Graham and Santacaterina have played – and won – in games for NIU. Graham has played in 17 games in his two seasons because of injuries to quarterbacks Drew Hare and Anthony Maddie, and he said that experience has helped him stay calm during the battle for the starting spot in the 2017 season.
“You just have to stay calm in your mind,” said Graham, who has thrown for 1,371 yards, 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions in his two seasons. “You can’t force anything and think you have to make a play right now. If you go out there like you have to prove something and you have to make plays all the time, then you’re not going to do well. I’ve learned that. ... Just because I’ve had a little experience and competed with some guys, I’ve realized you can’t go out and win it in one day. I have to be constant, be consistent and go through my reads.”
For Santacaterina, he started last season No. 4 on the depth chart and ended up starting the final game of the season as the injury bug hit the quarterbacks for the second consecutive season. He took over midway through the Eastern Michigan game – a 31-24 comeback win in overtime for the Huskies – and started in the 31-21 win at Kent State.
“Lots of ups and down in spring ball; when you have 15 practices, you have to have 15 good practices,” said Santacaterina, who passed for 361 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions and rushed for 107 yards last year. “Sometimes you’re going to have a good practice, sometimes you’re going to struggle a little bit, and what you have to focus on is the positives and fixing the mistakes. You’re going to make mistakes, and the spring is OK to mess up; you just have to fix the mistakes.”
Carey said that although the quarterback battle still is up in the air, some of the positions that were in question have been figured out – including Ryan Roberts getting the edge in one of the offensive line spots.
This is the first spring during Carey’s tenure that the Huskies came into it not having a winning record, finishing the year 5-7 and missing a bowl game for the first time since 2007.
However, Carey spoke glowingly about how the team responded this spring.
“This is by far the best spring I’ve been a part of since I’ve been here as a head coach or offensive coordinator,” said Carey, who took over before the 2013 Orange Bowl. “They were hungry to get on the field, and I think that is a powerful thing, and they practiced like it for 15 straight practices. We had to pull them back, and I think that’s a good thing when you have to pull a team back.”