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2023 Northern Illinois Huskies Positional Previews: Defensive front seven

NIU will be looking for an improved defense in 2023 after giving up nearly 33 points per game last season.

NCAA Football: Northern Illinois at Kentucky Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

The Northern Illinois Huskies struggled on defense all of last season but have a lot of young talent returning. In 2022, NIU gave up 32.8 points (113th in the NCAA) and nearly 400 yards of offense per game!

However, despite those big numbers, their front seven actually did alright...especially against the run. The Huskies allowed just 142.8 rushing yards per game - third best in the MAC - and allowed just 3.8 yards per rush (34th best in the nation). They also amassed 30 sacks, or 2.5 per game, which was good enough for 39th best in the NCAA. Finally, they recovered a dozen fumbles on defense, which ranked them 13th best in the country.

NIU also returns a hefty number of starters from last season. They did, however, lose three clutch linebackers - Daveren Rayner, Kyle Pugh, and Nick Rattin - and a pair solid defensive lineman, Izayah Green-May and Michael Kennedy.

While Pugh and Rattin both graduated, Rayner transferred out and joined fellow ex-Huskie Marques Cox as a Kentucky Wildcat. Up front, they’ll be without Green-May this season, who is now playing in the USFL. Those will be some big shoes to fill as Rayner was second on the team in tackles last season, Pugh was third, and Rattin was fifth. Kennedy led the team in sacks, with 5.5, and was third on the team in TFL while Green-May added a lot of pressure, netting 5 TFL, 3 sacks, and two fumble recoveries.

Northern was also able to add a few players to their front seven, in hopes of bolstering it up this season. They added linebackers from Virginia Tech and Lamar and, in an interesting move, switched George Gumbs from tight end to defensive end.

But, otherwise, there will be quite a bit of consistency to this Huskie front seven from last season’s team.

Down linemen

Northern Illinois v Kentucky Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images


  • Izayah Green-May (graduation; USFL with Pittsburgh Maulers)
  • Michael Kennedy (graduation)


  • George Gumbs (positional change, TE to DE)
  • Nevaeh Sanders (transfer from Iowa Western CC)
  • Casey Bending (incoming recruit)
  • Mark Hensley (incoming recruit)
  • RaSean Randall (incoming recruit)
  • Ajahvea Robinson (incoming recruit)


  • James Ester
  • Pierce Oppong
  • Devonte O’Malley
  • Raishein Thomas
  • Cam Crowell
  • Ivan Davis
  • Skyler Gill-Howard
  • Cade Haberman
  • Reggie Jean
  • Demond Taylor Jr.
  • Jacob Waskow
  • Jalonnie Williams
  • Roy Williams

NIU has nine defensive ends and ten defensive tackles listed for the 2023 season, most of whom are underclassmen. Of the nine ends, three are freshmen, three are sophomores, two are juniors, and there is one senior. At tackle, NIU has three freshmen, two sophomores, three juniors, and two seniors.

Up front, the Huskies have three beasts in James Ester, Davonte O’Malley, and Raishein Thomas, all of whom have started at least 21 games for the Huskies, with Ester leading the way with 29 starts.

Ester and O’Malley— the starting DTs for NIU— led the team in quarterback hurries last season, both racking up five QBH.

Ester totaled 28 tackles, six TFL, two sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception, and a pass break up. He comes into 2023 as a first team All-MAC player according to PFF and Athlon while Phil Steele has him on the second team list.

O’Malley had 35 stops, seven behind the line, 5.5 sacks (t-most on the team), and forced and recovered a fumble...and, just like Ester, he is getting a lot of preseason recognition. Athlon and Phil Steele have him on their first team All-MAC lists, while PFF named him a second team player.

In his role as defensive end last season, Thomas led the team in tackles for loss, bringing down the ball carrier nine times behind the line of scrimmage. He also had four quarterback hurries, three pass break ups, a forced fumble, and 44 tackles (t-6th on the team). Thomas was also named to PFF’s thrid team All-MAC squad to start 2023.

Juniors Pierce Oppong or Ivan Davis are the likely candidates as the other starting DE, as both of them have plenty of playing time under their belts. Oppong appeared in all 12 games last season, all 14 in 2021, and started all six games in 2020. Davis played in 11 games last year and in every game of 2021. Last season they each tallied 12 tackles, while Davis added a pair of sacks and TFLs and Oppong had a fumble recovery and half a sack.

The Huskies will rotate players in and out, so look for Cade Haberman, Demond Taylor Jr., Nevaeh Sanders, and even George Gumbs to make appearances in games.

Haberman and Taylor Jr. both have experience at defensive tackle. Taylor Jr. netted 20 tackles, three TFL, two sacks, and a forced fumble last season and Haberman added 12 stops, two TFL, and half a sack.

Sanders is a very athletic addition to the line for NIU. In high school he was third on his team in rushing, had 369 receiving yards, and also led the team with seven sacks on defense. Hopefully he can channel his inner Sutton Smith and use his speed and power to get to the quarterback.

Linebackers/Huskie Position

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 03 NIU at Kent State Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images


  • Daveren Rayner (transferred to Kentucky Wildcats)
  • Kyle Pugh (graduation)
  • Nick Rattin (graduation)
  • Nick Alvarado (transfer portal)


  • Keshon Artis (transfer from Virginia Tech)
  • Tyler Jackson (transfer from Lamar)
  • Jordan Monroe (transfer from Pasadena City College)
  • Phillip Baynes Jr. (incoming recruit)
  • Chase Hutchinson (incoming recruit)
  • Filip Maciorowski (incoming recruit)


  • Jaden Dolphin
  • Louis Frye (H)
  • Jake Gassaway
  • Jordan Hansen (H)
  • Ryan King
  • Devin Lafayette (H)
  • Ty Myles (H)
  • Rashon Myles Jr.
  • Joey Rattin (H)
  • Nathan Ruble
  • Quinn Urwiler

Northern Illinois has 17 total linebackers listed, 12 as standard linebackers and five at Huskie - a combination linebacker/safety position. The 17 players break down as six freshmen, three sophomores, five juniors, and three seniors.

Jaden Dolphin, Jordan Hansen, and Devin Lafayette all return and will see a lot of playing time, as will newcomers Keshon Artis and Tyler Jackson.

Dolphin, a junior who played in that Huskie position last season, has transitioned to full time middle linebacker for 2023. Last season he was fourth on the team with 52 total tackles and three QBH, two TFL, two pass break ups, and a forced fumble.

Hansen and Lafayette will continue their rolls in the Huskie position. Hansen, now a senior, has played in 26 games over the last three seasons for NIU. Last year, he had 21 tackles and fumble recovery but in 2021, he was fifth on the team with 58 stops and added five pass break ups and three TFL.

Lafayette, a junior, played in eleven games last season after coming back from a terrible season ending injury in the opening game of the 2021 season against Georgia Tech. In 2022, he ranked sixth on the team in tackles, amassing 44 total stops, and added two TFLs, a pick, a forced fumble, a PBU, and had half a sack.

Keshon Artis joins NIU after four seasons at Virginia Tech in the ACC. The senior linebacker played in 45 games for the Hokies and last year he had ten tackles - four solo stops - and added 1.5 TFL. At 6-feet, 246-pounds, he’s strong tackler that should have no problem wrapping up opponents. Last year against Boston College (who NIU opens up the season against this year), he did make a solo stop en route to VT’s 27-10 win over the Eagles.

Also joining the Huskies this season is fellow senior linebacker Tyler Jackson. Jackson transferred in from Lamar where he played in 28 games and started 23 of those for the Cardinals. Last year he finished with 98 tackles and had 9.5 tackles for loss. In his career, he has 158 stops and 13.5 TFL.

Quinn Urwiler, Louis Frye, and Joey Rattin will also get a good amount of playing time. Urwiler and Rattin are both juniors while Frye is just a sophomore. Urwiler tallied eight stops and a TFL last season while Frye was right behind him with seven tackles. Junior Joey Rattin, the younger brother of former Huskie Nick Rattin, played at Upper Iowa before joining the Huskies last season. In 2022 he played mostly on special teams but added three tackles and a fumble recovery and will look to add to those stats this season.

This is the fourth in a series of NIU football previews, with our next piece addressing the defensive secondary. Please look forward to that! If you missed any of the previous parts, you can catch up on all of our preseason stories here or NIU’s parts one, two, and three here.

Northern Illinois’ season kicks off Saturday, September 2nd at 12 p.m. Eastern time in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, where they are set to play the Boston College Eagles out of the ACC.