The Northern Illinois Huskies were swarmed by the injury bug last year. But they have a lot of firepower returning to DeKalb this year, which could make them a very dangerous team in 2023.
Last season, despite injuries to two of their starting quarterbacks and their star wide receiver, the Huskies were able to finish in the middle of the MAC in total yards per game (373.1) and points per game (27.3). As the Huskies have historically done, they ran the ball effectively, coming in second in the conference with 190.4 rushing yards per game, but were near the bottom in passing...netting just 182.7 passing yards per game (tenth in the MAC).
The Huskies were not immune to the transfer portal either, as leading rusher, Harrison Waylee, transferred out west - joining the Wyoming Cowboys. Also transferring out were quarterback Dusting Fletcher and fellow halfback Jaiden Credle.
However, the Huskies will welcome back Rocky Lombardi, their senior quarterback, and Trayvon Rudolph, both of whom were out with injuries last season.
With them back, and some other key additions, the Huskies look to have a much stronger offense this fall. But here’s a closer look at each of the position groups:
- Dustin Fletcher (transfer portal)
- C.J. Jordan (transfer from Idaho)
- Josh Holst (incoming recruit)
- Mason Kidd (incoming recruit)
- Rocky Lombardi
- Ethan Hampton
- Nevan Cremascoli
NIU claims six QBs on their roster - three freshmen, two sophomores, and one senior. But there is no question that Rocky Lombardi will retake the reigns of this offense come September.
Lombardi, now a seventh-year senior, returns for his third season as NIU. He originally played for the Michigan State Spartans before transferring in back in 2021. As a Huskie, Lombardi has thrown for 3242 yards and 20 touchdowns while completing 60% of his throws. He has thrown nine interceptions but a third of those turnovers came in a single game - versus Wyoming back in 2021, just his second game as a Huskie. Lombardi has also run for ten touchdowns at NIU and added 474 yards on 100 carries.
Backing up Lombardi will most likely be Ethan Hampton, who has had that role for the past two seasons. Hampton, a redshirt sophomore, also comes back from injury after he broke his hand last season. Hampton has played in seven games for the Huskies and thrown for 821 yards and seven scores in his limited playing time. So far he’s completing 58% of his throws but has tossed six interceptions. Unlike Lombardi, Hampton is not much of a runner, as he has 17 carries for -16 yards.
Cremascoli is the only other quarterback to take reps in the cardinal and black. The former walk-on played in the final four games last season, starting the last three games, but was able to retain his redshirt status so he comes in to 2023 as a redshirt freshman. He struggled at times last season, throwing seven picks and completing just 48% of his passes, but he was able to net 600 yards and five touchdowns.
C.J. Jordan is the only QB to transfer in to NIU. Jordan, a redshirt sophomore, appeared in six games for the Vandals last season but had limited stats - 2/2 passing for 11 yards and four carries for ten yards. However, the two years prior he was 30 of 58 passing for 381 yards and two touchdowns and ran the ball for 169 yards and a score before missing the rest of the season with injuries in both seasons.
Mason Kidd and Josh Holst both join the Huskies as true freshmen. Kidd, from Lawrenceville, Georgia, was an all-conference, all-county and All-Region player in 2021 and 2022. In those two season he threw for 2405 yards and 20 touchdowns. Holst is from nearby Marengo, Illinois and had his eye on NIU for quite some time. He is a dual-threat QB who, in his senior season, completed nearly 68% of his passes (127/187), threw for 1592 yards and 25 touchdowns and ran for an additional 733 yards on 70 carries (10.47/rush) and 13 TDs.
The Huskies really need to stay healthy at QB this season if they want to rebound. And there is some depth here...but all Huskie fans are hoping it’s the Lombardi show this season.
- Harrison Waylee (transferred to Wyoming)
- Jaiden Credle (transferred to Middle Tennessee State)
- Gavin Williams (transfer from Iowa)
- Kendrell Flowers (transfer from South Carolina State)
- Garret Gensler (incoming recruit)
- Greigh Joseph (incoming recruit)
- Jaylen Poe (incoming recruit)
- Joshua Pridgen (incoming recruit)
- Antario Brown
- Justin Lynch
- Christian Nash
The Huskies have a platoon of nine halfbacks - five freshmen (four true freshmen) and four juniors on the roster, and they’ll use a handful of them throughout the year. However, it’ll most likely be a heavy dose of Antario Brown and Gavin Williams leading the way.
Brown, now a junior, has been stellar in a secondary role for the Huskies the past two seasons. He has averaged 6.4 yards per carry over his career and racked up 1227 yards and 12 scores on his 191 attempts. Last season he saw action in ten games and had 110 carries for 689 yards (6.3/rush) and seven touchdowns.
Joining him this season is redshirt junior Gavin Williams. Williams, who played in the B1G the past two season, rushed for 471 yards on 116 carries in 26 games as an Iowa Hawkeye. The 5’11, 209 pound back should be able to tear up those MAC defenses and be a great compliment to Brown.
Kendrell Flowers, another redshirt junior, originally singed with Wake Forest out of high school but then transferred to South Carolina State in 2021. He was the Bulldogs leading rusher both years, amassing a combined 1254 yards and 13 touchdowns over the two seasons. He also had 35 receptions for 293 yards and a pair of scores. At Wake, he has just nine carries for 27 yards. Expect to see him in more power situations and near the goalline.
A familiar name on this list is Justin Lynch, the former NIU quarterback. Lynch, also a junior, moved from QB to RB this off-season, where he’ll most likely be used like Clint Ratkovic was a few season ago...and possibly on some trick plays, like halfback passes (maybe?). As a runner, Lynch scurried for 280 yards and three scores on 68 carries last season, including the game-winning score against WMU last season.
Christian Nash is a redshirt freshman that saw action in three games last season for NIU but accumulated no stats. But in his senior season in high school, he rushed for 1126 yards and 13 TDs on 122 carries and had three catches for 96 yards and a score.
The Huskies’ have four true freshmen this season - Gensler, Joseph, Poe, and Pridgen. I don’t expect these guys get too many carries with the depth up front...but knowing Coach Hammock, it wouldn’t shock me if any - or all - of them saw action this season at some point.
- Cole Tucker (graduated)
- Shemar Thornton (graduated)
- Fabian McCray (not listed on roster)
- Grayson Barnes (transfer from American River CC)
- Sean Elmore (transfer from Citrus College)
- Davis Patterson (transfer from Notre Dame College)
- Cam Thompson (transfer from Eastern Illinois)
- Kobe Askew (incoming recruit)
- John Gore (incoming recruit)
- Ryan McDonald (incoming recruit)
- James Smith Jr. (incoming recruit)
- Kyle Thomas (incoming recruit)
- Trayvon Rudolph
- Kacper Rutkiewicz
- Messiah Travis
- Trey Urwiler
- Billy Dozier
The Huskies have an astounding 21 wide receivers listed on their roster, more than any other position group. There are eleven freshmen, three sophomores, four juniors, and three seniors.
Leading the way will be Rudolph and Rutkiewicz.
Rudolph returns this season as a redshirt junior after being the lone bright spot for NIU in 2020 and stellar in 2021. A speed-demon, Rudolph has 1109 yards and seven TDs through the air, added an additional 106 rushing yards with a touchdown, and then has 1040 yards and another score on kick returns! Now that he is back and healthy, the Huskies have a quick-strike playmaker that break the game wide open.
Rutkiewicz enters his senior season and second year at NIU, after transferring in from Illinois State last season. After a slow start, he exploded late in the season last year and tallied 432 yards and six scores on his 26 catches. He also had five rushes for 45 yards and a score.
Travis, Urwiler, and Dozier (who is listed as a WR/RB combo) are the only other Huskie wide outs to catch a pass last season. Travis, a senior, had nine grabs for 81 yards and TD while Dozier had three catches for four yards and Urwiler had a single catch for -2 yards.
New to the team this year are Davis Patterson (R-Sr) and Grayson Barnes (Jr.) - a pair of upperclassmen who could make an impact right away.
Barnes, at 6-5, and should be a great threat in the redzone. Last season at American River CC he caught 38 passes for 526 yards and four TDs in 11 games and received All-America honors.
Patterson, a 6-4 senior, played at James Madison before transferring to Notre Dame College in Ohio back in 2021. He has totaled 760 yards and six TDs on 49 receptions over the past three seasons.
- Liam Soraghan (graduated)
- Christion Carter (transfer from Howard)
- Gavin Patrick (transfer from Wabash College)
- Devariae Burns (incoming recruit)
- Tyler Gaines (incoming recruit)
- Jay’shon Thomas (incoming recruit)
- Hyatt Timosciek (incoming recruit)
- Tristen Tewes
- Miles Joiner
- Drew Cassens
As with their WR corp, the Huskies are stacked deep at tight end. NIU has eleven tight ends listed, with five freshmen, one sophomore, three juniors, and two seniors.
Tewes, a redshirt junior, is a great receiving tight end and was fourth on the team last year with 180 receiving yards on 15 grabs and was tied for third with three receiving touchdowns.
Cassens (Jr.) and Joiner (R-Sr.) also accumulated some stats last season, combining for four grabs, 30 yards, and a TD. Joiner, now in his third season at NIU, did have a breakout year in 2021 when he caught 16 passes for 133 yards and a pair of TDs. Cassens is a former scout team quarterback that transitioned to TE for the Huskies.
A pair of transfers, Christion Carter and Gavin Patrick, should also see some action this year. Carter caught eight passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns last season at Howard while Patrick comes up from D-III Wabash where he snagged two passes for 27 yards and a touchdown as a Little Giant last season.
This is the second in a series of NIU football previews, with our next piece addressing offensive line. Please look forward to that! If you missed the first part, you can read that 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.