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NIU Football: Hillcrest's Cam Mattox, other young Huskies thrust into big roles

Vanderbilt running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn (5) fumbles the ball as he is hit by Northern Illinois cornerback Antwain Walker (26) in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. Vanderbilt recovered the ball. Vanderbilt won 24-18. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Vanderbilt running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn (5) fumbles the ball as he is hit by Northern Illinois cornerback Antwain Walker (26) in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. Vanderbilt recovered the ball. Vanderbilt won 24-18. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Young Northern Illinois players have seen themselves thrown into the fire in nonconference play, but as far as coach Thomas Hammock is concerned, the challenges posed to the young players have created conditions to prepare them for Mid-American Conference competition.

Heading into the contest with one defensive sack through three games, two Huskies came through with their first career sacks, one of them being a true freshman in Cam Mattox.

“It’s big time. Anytime you can get your first career sack, we had two of them today, Marcus Kelly got his first career sack, and Cam, young guy got his first career sack, it’s a huge boost of confidence,” defensive tackle Jack Heflin said. I’m excited to see what that kid is going to do and how he’s going to grow. I think he’s a very good, young talent.”

“We’ve got young guys that’s competing their butt off,” Hammock said. “The great thing about it, when you get an opportunity to play against Nebraska, you play against Vanderbilt, you play against Utah, what better experience to get you ready for the MAC?”

True freshman walk-on Nick Rattin saw time at linebacker. Freshmen defensive linemen such as James Ester, Jeffrey Griffin Jr., Desmond Taylor and sophomore Jawon Denton saw time against the Commodores and now have significant game time under their belts.

Sophomore cornerback Antwain Walker also saw more time in place of fellow sophomore Devin Haney, making six tackles in the process.

Hammock said he steers away from suggesting it’s ever a high-pressure situation for the “next man up” on defense.

“I never talk about pressure to our young men,” Hammock said. “These guys came here to play football. They want to represent our university in a first-class manner.”

Rattin, a Fremd High School grad from Palatine, finds himself one play or an injury to another linebacker away from playing a more-than-supplementary role.

“Rattin, he was ready for the moment,” Hammock said. “He went out there, and he played his butt off. That’s the thing that people need to understand is this [is] a kid that’s a freshman walk-on that’s been grinding his butt off since June, and he’s ready for the moment. He went out there and played solid football for us.”

That may come soon against Ball State, as Jordan Cole will not play the first half after being ejected for targeting in the loss to Vanderbilt.

“They make the call, they reviewed it. If they made a call and they review it, you have to live with the call,” Hammock said.

While Hammock touts the trust he has in players, he also has used timeouts heavily early in games, citing preparedness and being cautious with young players as reasons for doing so.

“You’re dealing with 18- and 22-year-old young men. As much as they talk about being professionals, they’re young men, they get into the moment, they get emotional and all those things,” Hammock said. “Those critical situations, especially in the first half, we’re going to use timeouts and make sure we’re in the right call to try to get off the field. I know they [were] in second-and-19, and I called a timeout to make sure we had the right personnel out there.”

Heflin was confident that the importance of conference play beginning this upcoming week would get through to the younger players.

“They have’t really gotten to experience it yet, but they’re going to this week,” Heflin said. “There’s a sense of urgency every week, but it’s a trophy week, conference play, we’re playing rivals every week, and when it’s time, it’s time to go. We want to get the ball rolling soon. I know we are.”

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