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Night and day difference: Pugh, Deveaux slated for return to LB corps for NIU

Northern Illinois University redshirt senior linebacker Lance Deveaux Jr. (left) and redshirt senior tight end Maximilian Thrower get tangled up during practice Friday afternoon at Huskie Stadium.
Northern Illinois University redshirt senior linebacker Lance Deveaux Jr. (left) and redshirt senior tight end Maximilian Thrower get tangled up during practice Friday afternoon at Huskie Stadium.

Everyone has waited a long time for the Mid-American Conference football season to start, but linebackers Kyle Pugh and Lance Deveaux have waited even longer.

Pugh was injured in Week 2 last year, a devastating shoulder injury on its own but made even worse for the Huskies by the fact that Deveaux was hurt early in camp. But now both are set to make their return in the Huskies opener Wednesday against Buffalo.

The other linebackers have really stepped up in the more-than-a-year since the last time Pugh was on the field with them, he said.

"It's night and day difference," Pugh said. "In football IQ, the growth and maturing they've shown from last year to this year is incredible. They've matured a lot and have an overall understanding of the game. I think the game is slowing down for them and it's really fun to play along side of them."

One of those is Nick Rattin, a walk-on freshman last year who ended up starting the last six games and making 37 tackles despite having not played linebacker in high school. The Fremd graduate also returned an interception for a score against Akron.

"He's one of the leaders on the team and the defense and he commands a lot of respect," head coach Thomas Hammock said. "Even Kyle and Lance respect him. As a sophomore he's a guy we're looking to get aligned properly and hard and physical. Those three guys give you leadership, give you exactly what you're looking for. They get your line lined up, they make sure the secondary is settled down. They handle the defense."

Deveaux said he's liked what he's seen out of both Rattin and the younger players.

"Last year he had to step up and play as a true freshman walk on," Deveaux said. "I think he did pretty good. Now I think he will elevate his game. I'm excited for what he is going to do this year. I can't wait to play with him."

Pugh is no stranger to injury, having suffered an arm injury in 2017 after making 35 tackles in four games. He played through injury for most of 2018 and still made 106 tackles.

A shoulder injury in Week 2 last year again ended his campaign early.

"Believe it or not it gets easier every time," Pugh said. "I knew what was coming with the ups and the downs. I mentally prepared better. Taking mental reps, staying engaged in other ways other than the physical part so when I was back and ready to put in work all I had to catch up on was the physical part."

For Deveaux, he made a start as a freshman in 2016 but wasn't a full-time starter to two years later, making 67 tackles in 13 games.

He took a redshirt last year.

Pugh was through most of his rehab, he said, by the time the COVID-19 pandemic struck. But Deveaux said the pandemic struck while he was still rehabbing his leg.

"It definitely changed things up with scheduling and everything," Deveaux said. "I was kind of on a strict schedule with rehab and everything like that. It's kind of like a bump in the road at times but once everything got back on track it flowed smoothly from there."

Linebackers coach Robert Wimberly said he likes the way the group is shaping up as a whole. And between the group having a year more experience in the system under the second-year staff, plus the return of Pugh and Deveaux, he expects a solid season.

"It's been exciting to see how they both persevered through injury to get themselves in the position to play this year," Wimberly said. "It's been rewarding. They are great examples for the young guys for them to be a part of that room. They always go the extra mile."

Wimberly said Deveaux shows the younger players the important of technical aspects of the game and Pugh is a role model.

"The thing with Kyle is he has the respect of everyone in this program, with what he's had to endure just to play in 2020," Wimberly said. "He just goes about his business every day. He's not looking for accolades. He works as hard as anybody on the team."

Hammock said that Deveaux has played better in this year's camp then last year.

"He's come back and performed pretty much better than I remember last year in training camp," Hammock said. "I really didn't know what to expect from Lance because he was hurt so early in training camp last year. He's back and you can tell the time he spent on Zoom meeting, the mental aspect is top notch for him. You put his physical traits in there and he's the complete package."

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