For Kyle Pugh, September 1st can’t come soon enough.
The 6-foot, 235-pound redshirt junior linebacker has been waiting to get back on the field for nearly a year after an arm injury ended his 2017 season just four games in. But what an impact he had in those first few games.
After redshirting in 2015, the Northern Illinois Huskies linebacker played on special teams and was back-up in 2016 but did see playing time in ten games, and even had two pass break ups against Ball State.
Then, last season, he had on of the best starts a linebacker could have. Pugh amassed 35 tackles, had an interception, tackle for loss, a pass break up, and two quarterback hurries in the Huskies’ first third of the season. But, in the fourth quarter against San Diego State, Pugh suffered a torn bicep that would sideline him for the rest of the year.
And, despite missing the final nine games, Pugh still finished the year as the tenth leading tackler for NIU.
The Huskies defense will need that same kind of production out of him this season too, as the top three Huskie linebackers in 2017 are all gone.
NIU loses their two leading tacklers, Bobby Jones IV and Jawuan Johnson, and fellow linebacker Alex Schwab. Jones and Schwab both graduated while Johnson transferred to TCU, leaving Pugh to start along side fellow juniors Lance Deveaux Jr. and Antonio Jones-Davis.
Pugh, a speedy, physical linebacker, can get to the outside quickly and hit incredibly hard. His speed makes him a solid pass defender as well, as he can more than keep up with most tight ends and some receivers.
And, with defenses gearing up to stop Sutton Smith, that should open up Pugh to blitz more effectively and get to the quarterback (if Smith cannot).
Pugh, and the other Huskie defenders, are eager to prove that, even without Johnson and Jones, they are still the best in the MAC and one of the best in the nation. It’s not just MAC schools that should be scared of Pugh though.
Last year, against P5 teams, Pugh shined brightest. Against Boston College he had 17 tackles and a pick. Then, at Nebraska, he exploded for 11 tackles and had a QB Hurry and pass breakup. The Iowa Hawkeyes, who NIU opens their 2018 campaign against, might want to take notice and keep an eye on him too.
If Pugh can stay healthy, and continue the same type of dominance he showed early last year, there is no reason the Huskies defense wont be just as good, if not better.