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2020 Mid-American Conference Football Season Preview: Northern Illinois Huskies

After a 5-7 season in 2019, what’s in store for year two under Coach Hammock?

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the Northern Illinois Huskies seemed to have an identity crisis. Some games NIU would look like true competitors and others they would come out flatter than the state of Kansas. Heck, sometime they would even switch mid-game (the Ball State loss comes to mind...).

So what can we expect in Year Two under Coach Hammock?

Personnel wise, the Huskies will certainly look a lot different from last season. NIU lost a huge number of players to transfers over the off-season, including five starters from last year. But Hammock and Co. were able to bring in over 30 new recruits and 10 transfers.


Roster Moves

Key Departures (T = transfer)

Marcus Childers, QB
Mariano Valenti, QB (T)
Rodney Hall, QB/WR (T)
Tre Harbison, RB (T)
Jordan Nettles, RB
Spencer Tears, WR
Mitchell Brinkman, TE (T)
Jordan Steckler, OL
C.J. Perez, OL (T)
Matt Lorbeck, DL (T)
Jack Heflin, DL (T)
Antonio Jones-Davis, LB
Mykelti Williams, S
Trayshon Foster, S


Key Returnees/Additions (T= Transfer)

Ross Bowers, QB
Conner Neville, QB (T)
Rodney Thompson, QB (T)
Andrew Haidet, QB (T)
Tyrice Richie, WR
Cole Tucker, WR
Luke Mallette, TE (T)
Kyle Pugh, LB
Lance Deveaux, Jr., LB
Greg DeLuca, LB (T)
Woody Appolon, S (T)


The Offense

For the time being it looks like Bowers will still lead the Huskie offense. However, after losing three quarterbacks during the off-season, the Huskies have brought in six new quarterbacks (four transfers and two freshmen). Bowers, last season, threw for 2130 yards and seven touchdowns. And, while he completed 57.8% of his throws, a shaky offensive line led to a lot of pressure. That pressure resulted in 18 sacks and eight interceptions.

We thought Jordan Nettles would be lining up behind Bowers but, as of yesterday, he was no longer listed on the NIU roster...so we have no clue who the Huskies will look to in order to replace Tre Harbison’s production. NIU has nine listed tailbacks - six freshmen, and one of each; a sophomore, junior, and senior.

Most likely it will be Erin Collins, a junior transfer who ran for 618 yards and 11 touchdowns in 11 games at Hutchinson Community College. But senior Shaquon Oliver and sophomore Jyran Mitchell (who also played as a reserve wide receiver last year) might also get time. The freshman most likely to play is Jeyvon Ducker, the 15th best All-Purpose Back in the nation last year.

The Huskies do return three of their top four receivers from last season, as Cole Tucker, Tyrice Richie, and tight end Daniel Crawford all come back. Tucker, a junior, led the team last season with 531 yards on 38 catches. Tyrice Richie had the most receiving touchdowns last year (4) and was fourth on the team in yards (415) and receptions (32). Daniel Crawford’s 37 receptions was good enough for second on the team and his 443 yards was third.

On the O-line, the Huskies will see a lot of new faces. They only have three upper classmen (all seniors) listed on their roster - Brayden Patton, Benn Olson, and Cole Webster. Patton started every game last season (nine at guard and three at center) while Olson played in ten games last season and nine in 2018. Webster has only seen action in one game - a blowout win against Akron last year. Marques Cox, a sophomore left tackle, played in every game last year and will look to do so again this season.

John Richardson returns as NIU’s place kicker. The sophomore was perfect on extra points (30/30) and was good on 14 of 18 field goals, with a long of 51 yards. Under 40-yards he was near automatic, going 10/11, but he struggled beyond that, going 4/7 on kicks of 40+ yards.

Matt Ference returns as the punter. He is already NIU’s all-time leader in punting, with an average of 41.4 yards per punt. Last year he punted 65 times for 2792 yards (an average of 43.0 yards/punt), had 16 punts of 50+ yards, landed 19 inside the 20-yard line, and just three touchbacks.


The Defense

NIU’s defense might be in trouble this year as both their linemen up front and secondary will look drastically different and will utilize a lot of new faces.

With Matt Lorbeck and Jack Heflin both leaving for the Iowa Hawkeyes, Weston Kramer now leads the defense up front. The senior defensive tackle has started 24 of the last 25 games and has seen action in 39 games for the Huskies. Over that time he has tallied 80 total tackles, 9.5 TFL, and 2.5 sacks.

While the D-Line might be going through a transition, the linebacking core for the Huskies should remain strong. Kyle Pugh and Lance Deveaux Jr. are back from injuries and will join Vinny Labus, Jordan Cole, and Nick Rattin to create a solid group in the middle. A new addition for the Huskies is former Navy SEAL and Duke Blue Devil, Greg DeLuca. DeLuca played football and lacrosse at Duke from 2010-2013 before enlisting in the Navy for the last six year. He’ll look to make an immediate impact at linebacker for NIU this season.

The Huskie secondary was also hit hard at the end of the season. Safeties Mykelti Williams and Treyshon Foster are both gone, as are Marshe Terry and cornerbacks Jalen McKie and Devon Haney.

Junior transfer Woody Appolon will spearhad the safety position while junior Dillon Thomas is the most veteran cornerback returning. Appolon tallied 30 tackles, 3.5 TFL, and had an interception in his two previous season. Thomas was the Huskies seventh best tackler last season, totaling 38 stops with four passes defended and a forced fumble.


Schedule

2020 NIU Huskies Schedule

DATE OPPONENT
DATE OPPONENT
Nov. 4th (Wed) vs Buffalo
Nov. 11th (Wed) vs Central Michigan
Nov. 18th (Wed) @ Ball State
Nov. 28th (Sat) @ Western Michigan
Dec. 5th (Sat) vs Toledo
Dec. 12th (Sat) @ Eastern Michigan

Outlook

There are a lot of question marks for the Huskies this season. NIU is a very, very young team with a lot of inexperienced players having to step up this season. The Huskie offense has some weapons at wide receiver and tight end but their running game and O-line play are quite questionable at the moment. If the line can protect Bowers and the halfbacks, the offense should be able to move the ball...but that might be a pretty big if.

On defense the line and secondary will be tested as, again, the Huskies will rely on players with very limited playing time. The Huskie linebackers will need to anchor the defense and keep teams from moving the ball. And Weston Kramer needs to play amazing up front as a run stopper/pass rusher.

It honestly might be good that NIU only has a six game schedule this season, as I just don’t see the offense moving the ball with ease or the defense being able to stop the pass. It will give a lot of the younger players some experience and lead to growth for next season.

We all know the Huskies can compete with any team in the MAC but I doubt we’ll see them win more than three games this year. I think 1-5 or 2-4 is most likely...but, boy, do I hope they prove me wrong.