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NIU offensive line 'encouraging' as padded practices start for Huskies

Linemen lineup during a drill earlier this month at an NIU football practice.
Linemen lineup during a drill earlier this month at an NIU football practice.

In a word, Daryl Agpalsa calls the look of the offensive line almost two weeks into NIU football fall camp encouraging.

In a few more words, the NIU offensive line coach said the line, while young, brings in a ton of experience to the Huskies this season, which begins Nov. 4 at home against Buffalo.

"We have a young group but we're bringing back some people with experience," Agpalsa said. "Marquese Cox is a redshirt but he started a bunch. Logan Zschernitz played as a true freshman, he started two games and got his redshirt and is back. What's fun is they have a lot of game experience to contribute to the group."

The line features just three seniors, with most of the rest sophomores or freshmen according to Agpalsa. One of those seniors is Brayden Patton, who shifted to center late last year and has been doing a "hell of a job" there in camp so far according to Agpalsa.

The team practiced in pads for the first time Sunday. Following the second padded practice Monday, Patton said it was good to be back in full pads for the first time since the Huskies closed their regular season with a 17-14 win against Western Michigan on Nov. 26.

"There were a lot of guys with energy," Patton said. "It was super physical. Guys were just going hard. You could tell everyone was so excited to be back in pads and being able to hit people again. It was awesome fun for sure."

Patton said he's liked the level of physicality he's seen on the line, something he said can be a question sometimes on a young team.

"It's hard to tell with so many young guys on the team, you don't know what their mindset is going to be like when they put on the pads," Patton said "They may be hesitant of going so hard. But everyone is flying to the ball on defense and offense and being physical on the line, too. ... We're going to be the most physical team on the field every single day, or at least try to be. We showed it yesterday in pads for the first time and it was awesome to see."

In addition to returners like Patton, Zschernitz, Cox and Benn Olson, second-year head coach Thomas Hammock said he's liked what he's seen out of the young players on the line.

He singled out a pair of true freshmen: 6-foot-6, 298-pound Evan Buss and 6-foot-4, 317-pound John Champe. He said Buss can play multiple positions and is very smart, carrying a 4.0 GPA in high school. He also compared Champe to Zschernitz - out of Wisconsin and a tough, physical wrestler.

He also pointed to redshirt freshman J.J. Lippe (6-foot-5, 295 pounds) and Leif Engstrand (6-foot-8, 316 pounds).

He said this year's group is playing with a physicality they are trying to turn into their identity.

"Last year there were some games where we did play to the level of physicality we expect," Hammock said. "Especially with games in November and December with the elements we have to be a physical unit in the trenches. The offensive and defensive lines are working extremely hard to create that identity."

The four experienced returners in Patton, Zschernitz, Cox and Olsen all started at some point for the Huskies last year, providing a good starting point of experience.

"To me they've all played in football games and it's not their first time out there," Hammock said. "What we need to do is create depth behind them. There are some young guys behind them for some quality depth. We want to be two deep at every position but we're not there yet."

Hammock said the Huskies are trying to get two deep at every position, something that the line is close to accomplishing.

Aiding that quest is the fact that NCAA has granted an extra year of eligibility to fall 2020 athletes. So freshmen this year will remain freshmen even if they play more than four games.

"Obviously it's been a challenging year with everything going on but what's interesting is the NCAA basically said this season they can play and you don't have to worry about bringing a redshirt," Agpalsa said. "So there's a lot of talented young players that are motivated to play. They can get the opportunity to play in hopefully six games and still be a freshman a year from now which is amazing."

And those freshmen are very hungry, Patton said.

"I really like where our group is at right now," Patton said. "Everyone is motivated to get better. Everyone is trying to earn a spot. When you're a younger guy maybe you're missing experience a little but that means you have to earn that spot, and a lot of guys are investing to see if they can do that. You can see the young guys are hungry. The whole group is jelling."

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