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NIU football: Smalls now healthy, makes up half of veteran cornerback duo

DeKALB – The 2016 season was starting great for Albert Smalls, with five tackles early in the opener against Wyoming.

Then he re-aggravated a shoulder injury he suffered in the Poinsettia Bowl the year before, and his season was over. As the 2017 season gets underway with fall practice, the redshirt junior cornerback said he feels better than he ever has.

“I feel way bigger, stronger, faster, smarter,” Smalls said after practice Friday.

Smalls has three interception in his career, two as a true freshman in 2014 and one in 2015. He’s started 11 games in his career, playing in 29 total.

Both he and fellow cornerback Shawun Lurry had injury problems last year – Lurry missed two games and parts of others. But expectations for the duo are high heading into the Sept. 1 opener at home against Boston College.

“We’re ready to come back and have a big year,” Smalls said. “We both had nicks and bruises last year, we’re both ready to come back and show we’re one of the best in the MAC.”

Defensive backs coach Melvin Rice – a former Huskies cornerback in his second year back as an assistant with the Huskies – said both Lurry and Smalls together in the backfield make a potent combination.

“Anytime you coach, you want your secondary to be the best in the conference,” Rice said. “We’re reaching that. The expectations are, day-to-day, come in and get better. If we can put in the work everyday, the work will take care of itself.”

Rice said Lurry has had strong workouts since returning in spring practices.

“We’re expecting him to be one of the best players on the defense,” Rice said. “We told him that. He needs to take his game to the next level now.

“Once you see him you see his length first,” he said. “He’s a big corner but he moves well like a smaller corner. He’s a veteran. ... Just him watching last year helped him build more confidence in himself.”

Coach Rod Carey said he expects a big bounce-back year from Smalls.

“He finally had an offseason to train,” Carey said. “He hurt his shoulder at the Poinsettia Bowl, and then did right again in Wyoming. But we were able to re-do the shoulder and he had the whole offseason, the whole summer to train. I’m looking for him to get into the groove, knock a lot of the rust off and be the player we know he is.”

The secondary is fairly young after Smalls and Lurry, and senior Mayomi Olootu – who had a lot of playing time last year with seven starts. Daniel Isom was pressed into service as a true freshman last year but is rehabbing an injury suffered during the spring.

That leaves a lot of youth, but Smalls said he’s been impressed with the group.

“We’re coming together real good,” Smalls said. “There’s a lot of new calls and stuff, but everybody is molding together. Communication is good back there. It’s looking nice.”

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