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2020 Mid-American Conferene Football Key Storylines: Northern Illinois Huskies

There are some major questions the Huskies will need to address this season...

Northern Illinois v Miami Ohio Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The Northern Illinois Huskies head into 2020 with some potential major issues.

NIU lost a lot of their starters from last season, both to transfers and graduation, and that team only went 5-7. So how will the Huskies bounce back with an even younger and more inexperienced team this season? And is there hope to get back to Detroit and the MAC Championship Game?


THERE WILL BE A LOT OF YOUNG PLAYERS THIS YEAR

If you look at NIU’s offical 2020 roster (as of 10/14) you’ll notice something...there are only 30 total upper classmen listed. 16 seniors and 14 juniors. Then there are 21 sophomores. And finally, there are 62 freshmen.

62 FRESHMEN!

But it’s not just the number of young players the Huskies have, it’s also where they’re playing.

NIU has very little experience/depth in some key positions - running back, offensive line, defensive line, and the secondary.

RBs: Jordan Nettles was slated to be the Huskies starting half back earlier this year but we recently learned that he was no longer listed on the Huskie roster.

With Nettles gone, NIU only has one other player that has seen the field - redshirt freshman Rondaruis Gregory (who had nine carries for 43 yards last season).

Most likely it will be Erin Collins, a junior transfer, getting the bulk of the carries. Collins rushed for 618 yards and 11 touchdowns at Hutchinson Community College last season. Shaquan Oliver is the only other upper classman listed. Oliver is a senior that moved from fullback to half back this year but has only seen time on special teams.

Besides Gregory, NIU also has five true freshman running backs and one sophomore that might see time. Jyran Mitchell, the sophomore, played as a backup wide receiver last season but has never carried the ball for the Huskies. The freshman most likely to play is Jeyvon Ducker, the 15th best All-Purpose Back in the nation last year, but Harrison Waylee is another potential option for Hammock. Waylee was the 14th best recruit from the state of Iowa and another highly rated APB.

OL: On the O-line, the Huskies 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 year and nine in 2018. Webster has only seen action in one game - a blowout win against Akron in 2019.

However, sophomore Marques Cox played in every game last year, starting at left tackle in ten games. Another sophomore, Nolan Potter, played in ten games and Kobe Rios, a sophomore transfer, saw action in five games at Iowa Western CC last season. Outside of those six guys, NIU’s roster contains 11 linemen listed as freshmen.

DL: Weston Kramer will anchor the line on defense but he’ll need help from transfer Miles Baggett. Baggett, a senior, walked on to NIU midway through last year but didn’t see any action. As a member of Minnesota State-Moorhead, he totaled 56 tackles, 14.5 TFL, seven sacks, two forced fumbles, and had a fumble recovery in two seasons.

Michael Kennedy, a junior, will also be expected to step up. Kennedy has seen time in twenty games for NIU but only has 13 tackles, 4.5 TFL, and two sacks in that time.

Outside of those three, the Huskies have five sophomores and 11 freshmen listed as defensive linemen.

DBs: Dillon Thomas is the cornerback that’s seen the most action, he was seventh on the team last year with 38 tackles and also had four passes defended and forced a fumble. Outside of him, Zhamaine March will look to get some more playing time. March, a junior, has played in 20 games over the past two seasons, mostly on special teams, and has tallied nine tackles. Sophomore Jordan Gandy, a transfer from South Dakota State, will look to make an impact at cornerback as well.

As for safeties, the Huskies lost both starters from last year and will now rely on another transfer, Woodly Appolon, as the last line of defense. Appolon stands an imposing 6-4 and will most likely be paired with Joshua Earl, a sophomore that played in eight games last season.


IS A QUARTERBACK BATTLE BREWING?

Senior quarterback Ross Bowers does return and will look to have a more productive year than he did in 2019. Bowers threw for 2130 yards and seven touchdowns and completed 57.8% of his passes last year. But a porous offensive line also led to him getting sacked 18 times and forced him into some bad throws, leading to eight interceptions.

However, with another weaker offensive line we could see him start to run into more problems with turnovers, sacks, and injuries. If he struggles we could see a bit of a battle as NIU brought in six new quarterbacks - four transfers and two true freshmen - many of which are dual-threats.

Connor Neville, a redshirt junior who originally signed to play for the Washington State Cougars, could give Bowers a run for his money. In high school Neville was a four-star prospect, named to the ESPN300, and was ranked the ninth best dual-threat quarterback. He saw no playing time at WSU so he transfered to East Mississippi Community College in 2019, where he went 233 of 368 passing (63.3%) for 2,615 yards and had 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

Rodney Thompson is another player we could see if Bowers goes down or struggles. Thompson, a redshirt junior, joins NIU after playing at Palomar College. In 11 games at Palomar, he threw for 3035 yards and 27 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions while completing 60.1% of his throws. He also ran for 390 yards and four touchdowns on 119 carries.

Redshirt senior Andrew Haidet also joins the NIU Huskies after playing for Houstin Baptist Huskies previously. In 11 career games, he threw for 348 yards and three touchdowns while completing 23 of his 57 passing attempts.

Tom Vatter, the fourth tranfer, comes from nearby College of DuPage where the junior played in 19 games over two years. Vatter threw for 1589 yards and had 12 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

NIU also inked freshmen Dustin Fletcher and Drew Cassens this year. Fletcher was one of the highest rated signees for the Huskies - a three-star prospect ranked the 30th best dual-threat QB last year. In high school he threw for 7,199 yards and 59 touchdowns and ran for 1,976 yards and 23 scores. Cassens was a two-way starter at QB and safety in high school and is another dual-threat player. He passed for 620 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 1513 yards and eight touchdowns last year.

Even if it is the Bowers show this season, the Huskies should be good on depth here for the next few years (pending they don’t all transfer out).


THE DEFENSE NEEDS A LEADER - AND IT’LL MOST LIKELY BE A LINEBACKER

Five of their top six tacklers from 2019 are gone. In fact, of the Huskies’ 20 leading tacklers in 2019, only seven return and only five had more than 10 tackles.

Vinny Labus is their leading returning tackler and he amassed 59 tackles, 5 TFL, and two sacks last year. Their next highest returning tackler is Dillon Thomas, who had just 38 stops last year.

NIU is lucky to get Kyle Pugh and Lance Deveaux Jr. back but they missed most of last year and who knows if they’ll be nearly as effective as they were before. Hopefully Pugh can stay healthy and lead the defense like he had been doing in 2018 and again in ‘19 before injuries.

Joining the Huskies this season is 28-year old Greg DeLuca, a senior that hasn’t played college football in nine years.

DeLuca played two sports for the Duke Blue Devils - football (2010-11) and lacrosse (2010-2013) - before enlisting in the U.S. Navy. He spent six years in the Navy and even became a member of the prestigious Navy SEALS before coming to NIU. This would be his final season of football eligibility and he’s using it while he pursues a master’s degree in sports psychology at NIU. DeLuca should be able to make an immediate impact for the Huskies and should prove himself as a fearless leader. His story reminds me of the Jake Coffman era at NIU.


All in all, with a major lack of depth and experience this season, the Huskies might struggle this season...even with it being just the six game conference schedule.

With the majority of the roster being freshmen and sophomores it looks like this could be another rebuilding year for the Huskies. But with Hammock’s recruiting success and some key player development, the Huskies should be a big threat come 2021/22.