2014 NFL Draft: Northern Illinois Draft History

Kevin C. Cox

NIU has been atop the MAC Football totem poll for sometime, but while it has a lengthy NFL Draft history, only one player in the modern era has actually turned his DeKalb-success into NFL stardom.

When it comes to football programs in the MAC, the Northern Illinois Huskies are among the best. Long before their recent round of success (from the mid-2000s till now) that's seen the team visit eight bowl games in 10 seasons, including a BCS berth and a Top-3 Heisman finish, NIU consistently produced solid football programs. Hell, before the Huskies joined the MAC in 1973 for the first time, they had won a Division II national championship, going 10-0 in 1963.

It' should be of no surprise than the the Huskies from DeKalb have had some success in the NFL Draft. But what's interesting to note is that it hasn't always translated into success on the NFL field.

All told, since 1948 until now, 33 huskies have been taken. It all started with Larry Brink, who was taken by the Los Angeles Rams in the 17th round that year. In seven seasons in the NFL, Brink—who is now 90—made the Pro Bowl twice, and was a first-team All-Pro once. He returned a fumble 84-yards for a score in his last season (1954), his lone year spent with the Chicago Bears.

Over the next 20 seasons, two more defensive lineman were taken, but neither found success in the NFL. Then, in 1969, a 6-foot-3-inch, 205-pound hulk of a wide receiver, John Spilis, was taken 64th overall by the Green Bay Packers. He remained the Huskies highest NFL Draft pick ever for 40 years. Though he never found success in the NFL (the most balls he caught in his three seasons was 14) he can be viewed as the starting point for a long run of Huskies NFL Draft picks.

From 1972 (the year before the Huskies joined the MAC for the first time) when punter/kicker Tom Wittum was selected in the eighth round by the 49ers, until 1987 (two seasons after the Huskies left the MAC), 19 former Huskies were selected in the NFL Draft. Three times in the span, NIU had three players taken in the same season.

Unfortunately, most of these players didn't last in the NFL, and those that did served mainly as backups for a few short years before moving on to other areas of life. Clarence Vaughn, for example, was taken in 1987, but only lasted five seasons in the league. He did accomplish a lot in the time (two Super Bowl Rings to be exact)  as a member of Washington's secondary but he's about the only player who stands out from this time period.

The 90s were a rough time for NIU football, especially in the NFL Draft. The Huskies had just two players drafted in that era, with nether amounting to much as pros. But as Joe Novak slowly righted the ship and got the Huskies back into shape, NIU's Draft success picked back up. In 2001, two Huskies were taken.

Ryan Diem, a guard, was selected by the Indianapolis Colts and went on to start on their line for 10 seasons, starting in 150 of 158 career games. He was a pivotal part to the success of the Colts' offense, helping pave the way for their Super Bowl-winning season in 2006.

Taken just a few picks after Diem, also in the fourth round but by the Tennessee Titans, wide receiver Justin McCariens also had a nice career in the league. In eight seasons—split between the Titans and New York Jets—McCariens was never a top-tier receiver, but he did amas a respectable career as a third option, totaling 3,676 yards and 16 touchdowns. His best season came in 2003 with the Titans, when he caught 47 balls for 813 yards and seven scores. He was a fantastic yards-per-reception guy, finishing with at least 15 yards per catch in all but his two last seasons.

In 2004 a deceptively fast, but stocky running back by the name of Michael Turner was selected by the San Diego Chargers in the fifth round. In two seasons as a starter at NIU, Turner flourished, totaling a then school-record 1,915 yards and 19 touchdowns in his junior season, and finishing Top 5 in the nation in rushing in both his junior and senior seasons.

But in the NFL, Turner was buried in the depth chart behind legend LaDainian Tomlinson, and played primarily special teams in his first two seasons.  But near the end of his second season, Turner came off the bench vs. the then-undefeated Indianapolis Colts in Week 15 and ran for 113 yards, including an 83-yard touchdown to help seal the Chargers win.

After two more seasons of splitting time in San Diego's crowded backfield, Turner was given a chance to be the featured back he was destined to be in 2008 when he was signed a mega deal with the Atlanta Falcons. Turner's time in Atlanta amounted to just five seasons, but he was easily a Top 5 running back for most of those years.

His first game in a Falcons' uniform saw him rush for 220. He rushed for 1,699 yards and 17-touchdowns on an NFL-best 376 carries that season.. Three times he finished in the Top 3 in the league for rushing in Atlanta, and three times he led the league in rushing attempts. But after deteriorating performance and failing an offseason physical, the Falcons released Turner in early 2013. He finished his career as the Falcons' single-season and career rushing touchdowns leader.

The guy who filled in for Tuner in DeKalb, speedster Garrett Wolfe, and shattered his Huskie' records was the next NIU player to be drafted when he was taken by the Chicago Bears in the third round of the 2007 NFL Draft. Where Turner weighed well over 220 pounds, and mixed his blazing speed with a downhill and punishing running style, Wolfe was smaller, and got by on freakish athletic ability and blazing speed. While it worked out splendidly in the MAC, he never amassed more than 120 yards rushing in a single season in his four years in the NFL. He spent some time in CFL, but found his way back to DeKalb, where he's currently finishing up a pair of master's degrees.

A fellow Huskie taken that same season, a round later, Doug Free has actually found success as an NFL offensive tackle after early injury problems. The Cowboys paid him big in 2011, rewarding him with a $32 million dollar deal. He's had some consistency issues since, and had to restructure his deal to stick around, but he is still one of the main cogs on the Dallas Cowboys' offensive line, which may or may not be a good thing.

But when it comes to the NFL Draft, one former Huskie stands above them all. Larry English was a MONSTER at NIU. Before Khalil Mack, English was arguably the best defensive prospect to come out of the MAC and be taken in the top rounds of the Draft. In 2009 the Chargers took English 16th overall, snapping Spilis 40-year-old title as the highest drafted Huskie ever.

English has been a disappointment though. In five years with the Chargers he has just 11 sacks. His role has been reduced as he's failed to flourish, but he's still under contract for the Charges for the upcoming season. There's still time for him to turn into a successful defensive end, but one worthy of his Top 20 selection status, he is not.

After English was taken, hundreds of picks came and went until former Huskie great, QB Chandler Harnish was taken last in the 2012 NFL Draft. Sitting behind andrew Luck means Harnish hasn't seen much time (nor is he likely to in the future), but he's still provided some grade-A entertainment.

It all leads us up to where we currently stand: the 2014 NFL Draft. Two years removed from having the greatest QB in NIU history taken in the Draft, we now await to see if the latest All-Time best NIU QB, Jordan Lynch, will get selected. But Lynch, for all his NCAA records and his athletic ability, is not going to be the top Huskie taken. That honor undoubtedly belongs to Jimmie Ward, a dynamic ball-hawking safety who's projected to go late first or early secons.

Can either of these two turn into the NFL-level star NIU's been waiting for? Where do you see these two going in the Draft, and do you think another Huskie could slip his way into the lower rounds? Let us know in the comments section below.

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