DeKALB – After Northern Illinois was routed by Duke in the Quick Lane Bowl on Dec. 26 Marcus Jones and Tre Harbison exited Ford Field and walked together to NIU’s locker room.
Once inside, the pair of NIU running backs embraced each other and made a promise. They didn’t want to taste defeat again in a bowl game and vowed to lead the Huskies’ backfield to new heights in 2018.
“We’re the leaders now,” Jones said Saturday after a spring practice. “We’re taking that leadership role and setting the example.
With the Huskies two-thirds through spring camp, it has become more apparent Jones and Harbison will receive a majority of touches at the running back position this upcoming season.
Their talent was on full display Saturday, when NIU held spring camp session No. 9 of 15 inside the Chessick Practice Center. It was evident when Harbison finessed his way into the end zone on a 40-yard touchdown run during full-team sessions. Jordan Nettles made some noise out of the backfield, too, splitting time with Harbison after Jones tweaked his ankle early in practice.
“The season didn’t end like we wanted to,” Harbison said. “We’re aiming towards a better ending for next year. We want a better result. We want to win a (Mid-American Conference) championship.”
NIU’s running backs are relatively young. Redshirt senior Jaden Huff, a transfer from St. Cloud State, is the lone senior of the group, while Jones enters 2018 as a redshirt junior, Harbison a redshirt sophomore and Nettles a redshirt freshman.
“I’ve always been the little guy,” Jones said. “Now I’m the oldest in the room. So I’ve got to set the example. Tre has been doing an awesome job doing the same with me.”
NIU quarterback Marcus Childers actually finished ahead of both Harbison and Jones in rushing yards last season. He was the team’s second-leading rusher with 473 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns on 143 carries.
Childers said the production of Jones, Harbison and Nettles makes his job easier.
“All three are really great backs,” Childers said. “Having those mix of guys, it’s fun watching them, giving them the ball and letting them run. They’re set to have a great year.”
For Harbison, the game is slowing down thanks to the added reps this spring.
“Everything is making more sense,” Harbison said. “This year, it’s more about what can I do to make the team better. Last year, it was more what can I do to get on the field.”
Another big part of the formula has been new NIU running backs coach Jake Landry.
“Coach Landry is a pretty technical guy,” Harbison said. “He makes sure we know why a play works and why a play doesn’t work. He makes us learn certain specifics, like how plays are blocked and things of that nature. That’s big to our running back room.
“Before, we didn’t necessarily know that. I’m not saying Coach [Jordan] Lynch was a bad coach or anything because he was a great coach. But Landry brings a different style to the room.”
Harbison and Jones will have big shoes to fill after the departure of Jordan Huff, who owns the program record for career rush average at 6.9 yards a carry.
The Huskies also are without running back Tommy Mister, who was removed from the team during the offseason after he violated team rules, NIU coach Rod Carey said.
Jones and Harbison, however, carry plenty of experience. Last season, the pair combined for 640 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 138 carries.
The experience will go a long way as the Huskies prepare for the 2018 season, Jones said.
“No other experience is like game experience,” he said. “The fact we both have a lot of game experience, it’s going to pay off when we’re in tight situations in games. We’ll know how to deal with situations and hopefully get a win and move forward as a program.”