For the past decade Northern Illinois has been the biggest program in the state of Illinois. Not in terms of actual size, or national prestige, or athletic revenue, but when it comes to wins on the football field Illinois and Northwestern haven't been able to compete.
It should come as little surprise then then when Illinois and NIU were going head-to-head after a highly touted 2015 prospect that the Huskies won out. That's just what happened earlier this week when D.J. Brown, a multi-talented offensive weapon out of Little Rock, Arkansas, and considered by many as a Top 30 running back in the class of 2015, committed to NIU over the Illini.
Versatile ATH D.J. Brown Commits to Huskies
A look at what Brown's commitment means for NIU, and how big of a get this is for the Huskies' 2015 recruiting class.
While the national media may still tend to view Illinois and Northwestern as better programs, prospects like Brown aren't blinded by conference affiliations.
"Mostly the only reason people thought I was going to go to Illinois was because it was Big 10, but to me the conference really didn't matter," Brown told Hustle Belt shortly after announcing his decision.
"I just wanted to go to a school where I felt like I was going to be a big part of it, I was going to be a main focus, and I was going to be able to play as a freshman. Illinois said I would play as a freshman, but it was more NIU. The winning there. It's not like a rebuilding year. NIU has been winning for a while."
Since 2000 the Huskies have had 13 winning seasons, captured two MAC Championships, and have now appeared in six consecutive bowl games, including a BCS bowl. In that same span, even if you combine Illinois' and Northwestern's winning seasons, they only tie NIU with 13 total, and have zero combined Big 10 championships. The kind of winning that NIU has achieved is infectious, and makes recruits who would have otherwise gone to schools in bigger conferences reconsider.
Brown said when it came down to making the final decision everyone in his inner circle was high on the Huskies. The future psychology major and his family were impressed with the school's academics and graduation rates, as well as the success on the gridiron. As someone who has followed NIU for some time, Brown was high on the team from the beginning.
"I've always watched them on TV. So when I got offered by them I pretty much knew that they were going to be in my top two or five," Brown said.
It was his visit to DeKalb for the Huskies' Spring game that really sold him on NIU.
"It's a smaller town, I like that. When I went up there for the visit it was really like being a part of a family, so I really liked that. That made me want to go there.
"[Head coach Rod] Carey was really high energy. He was flying around the field talking to everybody. He wouldn't come in and say a few words to everybody and go back to where he was. He was there the entire time talking to me and my dad, so I just felt like I was already a part of them," Brown said.
As a part of NIU, Brown factors to be a key contributor in the spread offense from Day 1. With his unique blend of skills, Brown makes up for his lack of size (5'9'', 177 lbs) with the ability to break big plays from almost anywhere on the field. As a versatile player, Brown can line up in the slot, or in the backfield. He's lightning quick, deceptively strong, has soft hands and can read the field with laser-like precision. Think of him as a Garrett Wolfe 2.0, but with the potential to be a bigger threat in the Huskies spread pass attack.
In fact, NIU's explosive offense was a recruiting tool in itself when it came to Brown.
"They're really dynamic with that spread offense. They get the ball around to everybody, and I can play all those positions," Brown said. "They want me to play everywhere. Running back and receiver."
Huskie fans will have to wait until the fall of 2015 to get to see Brown play in the red and black, but for now can rest assured that they've got a future star with a solid mindset who isn't distracted by the glitz and glamour of bigger programs.