Northern Illinois Huskies
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Coach and Program | Quarterbacks | Running backs | Wide receivers/tight ends | Offensive Line | Kickers | Defensive Line | Linebackers | Defensive backs | Punters | Special teams | Recruiting Class | Blue Ribbon analysis
COACH AND PROGRAM The Northern Illinois football team is a lot like a luxury sedan on a showroom floor. The Huskies have just about everything you would look for in a team -- a veteran defense, solid offensive line, a strong 1-2 punch in the backfield, quality receivers and seasoned special teams. And just like the luxury car, the only thing the Huskies are missing is a driver. Northern Illinois hopes it does not have to pay too steep a price while searching for Chris Finlens replacement at quarterback this season. "We need a kid to step in there," coach Joe Novak said, "but he doesnt need to be a superstar." Three players had the chance to take the Huskies offense on a test run during spring practice, but nobody emerged as the winner. Novak hopes that changes before the season starts, or else freshman Phil Horvath (6-3, 185) might go right from Naperville Central High to starting in the college ranks.
COACH AND PROGRAM
The Northern Illinois football team is a lot like a luxury sedan on a showroom floor. The Huskies have just about everything you would look for in a team -- a veteran defense, solid offensive line, a strong 1-2 punch in the backfield, quality receivers and seasoned special teams.
And just like the luxury car, the only thing the Huskies are missing is a driver. Northern Illinois hopes it does not have to pay too steep a price while searching for Chris Finlens replacement at quarterback this season.
"We need a kid to step in there," coach Joe Novak said, "but he doesnt need to be a superstar."
Three players had the chance to take the Huskies offense on a test run during spring practice, but nobody emerged as the winner. Novak hopes that changes before the season starts, or else freshman Phil Horvath (6-3, 185) might go right from Naperville Central High to starting in the college ranks.
"The quarterback spot is the key," the seventh-year coach said.
If the Huskies can find an effective replacement for Finlen, a four-year starter, it could open the door to another winning season and another MAC West championship.
Last year, NIU went 6-5 overall for the second straight year, and shared the league title with Ball State and Toledo after each finished 4-1 in the division. It marked the first time the Huskies have had back-to-back winning seasons since 1989-90.
Even without an established quarterback, Novak is excited about this years team. What former defensive coordinator wouldnt like to have nine starters back on defense, including first-team All-MAC cornerback Vince Thompson (5-10, 178)?
"This is the strength of our football team," said Novak, who served as defensive coordinator at NIU (1980-83) and Indiana (1984-95) before taking over the Huskies in 1996. "We have nine starters back and depth there for the first time."
Last year, the Huskies 4-3 defense finished in the middle of the MAC pack in points allowed (26.5), rushing yards (157.6) and passing yards (227.8), but forced 23 turnovers and scored four touchdowns. Thompson had a MAC-leading five interceptions and the Huskies were plus-nine in takeaway/giveaways.
The offense scored 27.5 points per game with Finlen and wide receiver Darrell Hill, who was chosen by the Tennessee Titans in the seventh round of the NFL draft in April. Their departure might slow down the passing game, but senior Thomas Hammock (5-8, 214) and junior Michael Turner (5-10, 217) are back to guide the ground attack.
Hammock rushed for 1,096 yards and seven touchdowns last year behind a line that returns four starters and senior tight end Matt Dunker (6-5, 241).
For the last four seasons, the Huskies have not had to worry about who was taking snaps under center. Finlen knew the offense better than the coaching staff, starting the final 30 games of his career.
Finding his replacement has been the hard part, with no one emerging from a three-way battle during spring sessions. The Huskies do not need an all-star to run the play action passing game, just a Trent Dilfer-type who can get the job done like the former Baltimore Ravens quarterback did in 2000 on the way to a Super Bowl championship.
"We dont need someone to come in and make a ton of plays," Novak said. "We need someone to play smart."
Sophomore Josh Haldi (6-2, 194) backed up Finlen last year but has thrown a total of seven passes in his college career. Still, he is the most versed in the NIU offense.
Haldis competition for the job is junior Kyle Padia (6-3, 211) and junior Ryan Gilbert (6-4, 190). All three produced equal numbers during spring scrimmages despite missing a handful of receivers because of injuries.
Padia, who sat out last season after transferring from West Valley College in California, might have the best arm of the trio, but he is also the least mobile. Gilbert arrived in January from El Camino (Calif.) Junior College, where he threw for 1,750 yards and 15 touchdowns with nine interceptions last year.
A fourth quarterback, red-shirt freshman Joe Stamm (6-1, 185), is out for the year with a shoulder injury.
Horvath arrives in August, but Novak hopes he will not need him this season. The in-state signal caller went 21-2 in two seasons at Naperville with 3,859 passing yards, 35 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
With Hammock and Turner, the NIU backfield remains in good shape. The experience between the backs should help take some pressure off whoever ends up at quarterback
Hammock has put together back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. NIU has never had a running back top the 1,000-yard mark in three consecutive seasons despite having two NCAA I-A rushing champions (Mark Kellar in 1973 and LeShon Johnson in 1993).
In his last 20 games, Hammock has averaged 108.9 yards per contest. The two-time Verizon Academic All-American has 11 career 100-yard rushing games, and NIU is 8-3 when he hits the century mark.
"Hes just a solid kid," Novak said. "Academically and athletically, hes been the model of consistency."
Turner rushed for 983 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman, but his numbers dropped last year. The explosive tailback rolled up only 395 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games.
The Huskies have a host of tailbacks waiting in the wings. Juniors DuJuan Johnson (6-1, 196) and Jon Lanum (5-10, 199), sophomore Robert Wallace (5-8, 201) and red-shirt freshmen Kevin Woods (5-8, 185) and Jeremy Pugh (6-0, 199) provide plenty of depth.
The top running back in Wisconsin, Adrian Davis (5-8, 195), is one of three freshmen. Davis, Wisconsins Player of the Year, set a state rushing record with 3,422 yards, to go with 43 touchdowns, last fall at St. Joseph in Kenosha. He finished his career second in the state with 5,742 rushing yards.
The other freshmen backs are from Illinois. A.J. Harris (6-2, 190) has blazing speed despite a knee injury as a junior at Wheaton North, while Garrett Wolfe (5-9, 190) was a two-time all-state selection and rushed for 4,311 yards and 56 touchdowns as an upperclassman at River Grove Holy Cross. He also returns kicks and punts.
The Huskies do not give their fullback much work, but seniors James Johnson (5-10, 240) and Al Chaires (5-11, 226), and junior Mike Scaramella (5-11, 220) provide depth at the position.
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
The Huskies lost their big-play guy and offensive MVP Hill to the NFL, but feisty senior P.J. Fleck (5-10, 175) returns after leading the team with 59 receptions. Fleck, who was slowed by a rotator strain in his left shoulder during spring ball, had five touchdowns and 732 receiving yards working opposite Hill.
The other spot appears up for grabs, with NIU following the receiver-by-committee approach. Juniors Keith Perry (6-3, 221), Mike Archie (6-2, 195) and Kandras Bledsoe (5-8, 170), plus sophomores Andy Lothson (6-1, 187) and Dan Sheldon (5-9, 163) all have game experience.
Perry caught 17 passes for 217 yards last season, but missed four games with a fractured wrist. He was another of the walking wounded in spring practices with a meniscus tear in his left knee.
Freshman Shatone Powers (6-0, 180) set an Illinois record with 117 catches his senior season at Riverside-Brookfield, breaking the old state mark of 95 held by Fleck. The all-state selection finished with 1,556 yards and 16 touchdowns playing in a run-and-shoot offense.
Another talented freshman is Jarret Carter (6-3, 185) out of Hazelwood Central in Florissant, Mo.
Returning tight end Dunker finished tied for third on the team with 17 receptions for 85 yards and a touchdown. Novak would like to get him more involved in the offense this year.
Also at tight end are sophomores Aaron Anderson (6-4, 228) and Brad Cieslak (6-4, 232), and red-shirt freshmen Ben Blonn (6-2, 220) and Pat Raleigh (6-4, 226).
Freshman Jake Nordin (6-4, 230) played tight end and linebacker for Minnesota state champions Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City. He was also an all-state selection.
Senior Tim Vincent (6-6, 289) headlines a line with four veterans back, and seven players who have started at least one game. The second-team All-MAC tackle has started 27-of-31 career games and can back squat lift 475 pounds.
Vincent is not the only big fellow on the line, though. The front unit averages 6-4 and 292 pounds and picked up another hearty addition in junior college All-American guard Noah Washington (6-3, 300) from the College of DuPage. The junior had 15 "pancake" blocks last season in 10 games.
Junior center Todd Ghilani (6-3, 288) started 11 games last season and right tackle Mark Orszula (6-7, 302) made eight. Junior guard Shaun Schroeder (6-2, 288) added six starts on a line that averaged 340.5 yards of offense per game.
Sophomores Matt McGhghy (6-2, 281) and Jake VerStraete (6-6, 276) each made five starts in 2001 and add depth to the line. Junior guards Graham Sleight (6-3, 310) and Joel Ellis (6-5, 308) further strengthen an area that was perceived as a weakness going into last season.
"Our offensive line did nothing but improve and mature last year," Novak said. "Well be bigger and more physical up front."
Freshman Doug Free (6-5, 260) is another recruit the Huskies landed out of Wisconsin. Free played on both sides of the line at Lincoln High in Manitowoc.
They dont come much better than junior Steve Azar (5-8, 192), who was the MACs Co-Special Teams Player of the Year and a first-team all-league selection last year. Azar set a school record by converting 20-of-26 field goals, including the game-winner in a 20-17 victory over South Florida in the season opener, and tallying 91 points.
The soccer-style kicker was ranked third in the nation in field goals per game (1.82), ninth in kick scoring (8.3 points per game) and 24th in overall points. He kicked a 50-yard field goal against Illinois and was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award.
"To me, hes as good a place-kicker as there is in our league," Novak said.
Novak wants an "attacking" 4-3 defense, and the front four is where it all starts. Three players are back from last years starting group -- senior tackles Eric Didesch (6-4, 276) and Anthony Falbo (6-3, 263) and sophomore Travis Moore (6-1, 232).
Moore, a former walk-on, had 49 tackles and two sacks last season, while Falbo and Didesch anchored the inside of the line with a combined 90 tackles, 26 quarterback pressures and five sacks. Didesch did not participate in the spring scrimmage because of a knee injury.
NIU lost its top defensive lineman, Trent Clement, but Novak says this unit has plenty of talent.
"Up front, were deep, and we can use a rotation to keep those bodies fresh," he said.
Adding depth at the end spot are juniors Jason Frank (6-1, 273) and Vinson Reynolds (6-1, 229), a converted linebacker, along with sophomore Curtis Crossley (6-2, 211) and red-shirt freshman Quince Holman (6-3, 225). Frank is expected to replace Clement in the starting unit.
At defensive tackle, senior Jason Banks (6-1, 273) brings some experience to the mix, while the rest of the group is made up of new faces -- junior Leonard Cooksey (6-0, 280) and red-shirt freshmen Charles Johnson (6-2, 293) and Justin McIntyre (6-2, 281). Junior Steve Williams (6-4, 270) will not be able to help inside until the 2003 season after transferring from Indiana in the off-season.
The one area Novak wants to see improvement is in sacks. NIU finished with 28 last year.
"Weve struggled rushing the passer," he said. "We have to put pressure on the quarterback."
The freshmen class includes three more defensive tackles. The in-state recruit is Jasen McDonald (6-5, 270) from Leo. The other two tackles are from Vincent High in Milwaukee -- Mychael McKay (6-3, 275) and Eric Pittman (6-2, 270). Both Wisconsin players were considered among the top 20 in the state.
Senior Larry Williams (6-0, 231) and junior Nick Duffy (6-2, 232) know how to deliver a hit, and anchor one of the teams strongest spots.
Williams numbers were up last season, with 123 tackles, including 92 solo stops, but he went from first-team All-MAC honors in 2000 to only honorable mention last year. In three seasons, he has 304 tackles, 32 starts and 16 double-digit tackle games.
Duffy matched his teammates 92 solo stops, which tied for sixth in the nation, and finished with 125 tackles, four sacks and one interception.
Their new running mate, sophomore Brian Atkinson (6-2, 218), should fit right in. Atkinson, a converted tailback from high school, started three games last year. He finished with 27 tackles and one forced fumble.
"Hes a physical kid who can run," Novak said of Atkinson.
Backing up the big three are sophomores Jason Hawkins (6-2, 237) and Kursten Strothman (6-2, 215), both of whom excelled on special teams last year. Red-shirt freshman Javan Lee (6-3, 204) also fits into the mix.
The Huskies signed only one linebacker, but he could be a good one out of Chicago . Ken West (6-2, 235) opted for NIU over Illinois, Minnesota and South Carolina after racking up 98 tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles at South Holland Thornwood his senior season. He also rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 17 touchdowns.
The "Mad Dawgs" are back for another season of hounding MAC quarterbacks and receivers. The leader of the group, Thompson, led the league in interceptions (five) and pass deflections (17). His partner at the other corner is junior speedster Randee Drew (5-9, 179), who finished with 43 tackles, seven deflections and one interception.
Junior strong safety Akil Grant (5-10, 187) is coming off a second-team All-MAC campaign that included 114 tackles, eight deflections and one interception.
Junior free safety Lionel Hickenbottom (5-11, 187) rounds out the starting group. "Boogie" had 90 tackles, nine deflections and four interceptions last season and was twice selected the MAC West Defensive Player of the Week.
Also at cornerback are junior Gerard Taylor (5-8, 183) and sophomore Rob Lee (6-0, 189). Backing up the safety spots are seniors Justin Dole (6-0, 190) and Mike Spacucello (5-11, 195), junior Brandon Hawkins (6-2, 210) and sophomore free safety Devron Francis (5-8, 175).
"At linebacker and in the secondary, I think were right up there with anybody in the league," Novak said. "Weve got some playmakers, some difference-makers."
A few more are on the way in the freshmen class. Identical twin cornerbacks Adriel (5-9, 170) and Alvah Hansbro (5-9, 170), from Edgewood High in Madison, run 4.4 times in the 40 and both have 36-inch vertical leaps. Cornerback Andre Morris (5-9, 170) made 256 tackles and 19 interceptions in his four-year career at Simeon in Chicago, while safety Dustin Utschig (5-10, 185) was a standout two-way player (running back) at Fox Valley Lutheran in Wisconsin.
Senior Jimmy Erwin took a giant step forward last year for NIU, vaulting from 10th to third in the MAC in punting with a 41.8 average, which ranked 38th in the nation.
The 6-0, 223-pound punter placed 15 of his 60 kicks inside the opponents 20-yard line and had only one punt blocked.
NIU excelled at kicking and returns last season. The Huskies finished second in the MAC and 24th in the NCAA in kickoff returns with a return average of 22.7 yards per kick. Turner, Drew and Fleck are seasoned return specialists. Wolfe might also be able to break in here.
The rich got richer, most notably at tailback where the Huskies landed three excellent prospects in Davis, Harris and Wolfe. They also might have their quarterback of the future in Horvath and a steal on the offensive line in Washington.
Novak compares this class to the 1997 group that included future NFL draft picks Ryan Diem and receiver Justin McCareins.
"This group has that type of potential," the coach said. "We just wont know until three or four years down the road."
The Huskies landed nine players from their home state -- all of them coming from the Chicago area. Plus, they added six of Wisconsins top 20 players, as selected by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and dipped into Minnesota, Missouri and California for three more prospects.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Northern Illinois has it all, except a proven quarterback. Novak probably wishes he could have kept Finlen around for another season but will have to make do without him.
In his seventh season at NIU, Novak has turned the Huskies into a solid and stable program that could be in line for a special season if things fall right. Depth could be a key concern; the Huskies were beaten up at receiver and a few other spots during the spring. Novak said the injuries would not keep anyone out of action for the season.
The first three games wont be easy ones, but they will prepare the Huskies for a championship run in the West and maybe even a trip to their first bowl since 1983.