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NIU coaches optimistic about what young secondary can accomplish

NIU wide receiver Rodney Hall (6) is hit after the catch by defensive back Zhamaine March (20) during a spring scrimmage in DeKalb May 6.
NIU wide receiver Rodney Hall (6) is hit after the catch by defensive back Zhamaine March (20) during a spring scrimmage in DeKalb May 6.

The cornerbacks for the Northern Illinois football team feature no seniors, two juniors, and just a smattering of game experience.

When it comes to the NIU secondary, they're the experienced group compared to the safeties.

Despite the youth and dearth of experience, both head coach Thomas Hammock and defensive coordinator and safeties coach Derrick Jackson are optimistic about what the group can produce.

"If you look at the team a year ago at this time we needed to get bigger on the back end of our defense," Hammock said. "I'm used to DBs with size. DBs with length, and DBs with a lot of athleticism. Normally those guys play both ways in high school and have great ball skills. I think we've done a great job of recruiting people to that profile along with some guys currently in the program we developed last year."

Dillon Thomas, a 6-foot, 2-inch redshirt junior, played all 12 games for the Huskies last year and started three of them. He had 12 tackles and two pass breakups against Toledo and forced a fumble to preserve the win in the season finale against Western Michigan.

J.D Harris returns, having played some special teams before getting hurt in a practice and missing the rest of the season. Zhamaine March returns after starting the Nebraska game and seeing time in nine games.

"(At 5-foot-8, March) may not have the height guys want, be he's a fierce competition and makes ferocious tackles," Jackson said. "He makes more on the ball plays than in the past and is doing some nice things."

True freshman Myles McGee may get some time as well and pop into the two deeps before the season starts Nov. 4 at home against Buffalo, Jackson said.

Jackson also said Jordan Gandy, a DeKalb graduate and sophomore transfer from North Dakota State, has been turning heads in practice.

"(Gandy) has probably been the surprise of camp," Jackson said. "He's around every ball and makes every tackle. He's competing on every rep. He finishes every rep. He brings an amount of swagger that maybe we lacked last year that ow we have."

Gandy's former teammate at DeKalb and current NIU secondary-mate, redshirt sophomore Brianjay Ross, said Gandy's been a good addition to the team.

"It's great to play with him again since we played together in high school," Ross said. "We had a good secondary, and it's great seeing a former teammate back there."

Ross is one of two redshirt sophomores in the safety group, along with Joshua Earl. There are no juniors or seniors.

Jackson said the group brings back a total of three tackles from last year, all by Earl on special teams.

"The guys back there are playing with their hair on fire," Jackson said. "We're seeing a lot more highly contested plays in the back end with the receivers than from what I saw a year ago. We've probably made more plays on the ball that I can remember from a year ago with more experienced guys. From a physicality and tackling standpoint we've raised the bar at both corner and safety."

Jackson said there's a trio of guys in the running for each spot. For the whip position, more of a linebacker spot according to Jackson manned by Mykleti Williams, Devin Lafayette, Tryrik Henderson and C.J. Brown are all in the mix.

"They've all flashed at times but need to be more consistent in the position in terms of communication," Jackson said. "We need to be more consistent in our open-field tackling. That concerned us a year ago, we would let big plays happen that we could have prevented."

At stud, taking over for Trayshon Foster, Brown is in the mix there as well along with Earl and Jordan Hansen.

"They made some flash plays but have been inconsistent," Jackson said. "But it's a position where we've at least upgraded speed. It's just the unfortunate part is these guys, other than Josh Earl, have never played a collegiate game of football. Hopefully our practices will provide enough of a transition where game time is not a shock to their system."

Hammock said the secondary was a focal point of recruiting, and with true freshman like Hansen, Lafayette and McGee in the mix for playing time, if not starting time, he said it paid off.

"If we needed one guy we took two," Hammock said. "We had to make sure we had enough depth, and quality depth, through the roster. Especially now you're dealing with COVID and injuries, guys have got to play multiple spots and positions. They've got the football intelligence to handle a high volume of info."

With less than three weeks left to the start of the season, both Jackson and Hammock said nothing is set in stone.

"To me I think for us we've got six guys that compete extremely hard," Hammock said. "It wouldn't shock me if some young guys stepped up and earned a spot. We have another week or so to sort out or depth but these guys make plays and have great ball skills and tackle well. They have those ingredients to give us a chance to be a great secondary."

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