In a "game" largely dominated by defense, an early Shawun Lurry interception return for a touchdown set the tone for what would become a Team Black 21-0 whitewash of Team Cardinal. It was the conclusion of a spring which featured clarity at a few positions, but also giving Huskie fans a preview of position battles to come in the fall.
Drew Hare is the starting quarterback
A year ago, Drew Hare was firmly entrenched in a three way battle with Matt McIntosh and Anthony Maddie to be the team's starting quarterback. Now, Hare is the undisputed leader of the defending Mid-American Conference Champions.
After seemingly losing the job to McIntosh, Hare came off the bench against Northwestern and orchestrated three second half touchdown drives, leading the Huskies to a 23-15 victory in Evanston. Hare would end up splitting time with Maddie throughout the regular season before finally claiming the job as his own in the regular season finale against Western Michigan, helping the Huskies capture their fifth consecutive MAC West Championship.
More NIU Spring Ball
More NIU Spring Ball
Following Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch is no easy task, but Hare filled their shoes admirably. In 14 appearances, he posted 3,222 total yards, 26 combined touchdowns, and only threw 2 interceptions.
What Hare gained in game experience last year, he still lacks in practice experience. After spending 2013 as the third stringer behind McIntosh and Lynch, Hare split first team repetitions with McIntosh and Maddie during both spring and fall practice in 2014.
This spring was the first time Hare has truly been given the reps a starting quarterback usually get. Those extra reps, as well as the familiarity working with the starting wide receivers should have nothing but a positive effect moving forward, particularly in helping to improve his deep ball.
A deep, talented group of wide receivers
Rarely will you see a team be forced to replace an 1,000 yard receiver like NIU has to in Da'Ron Brown and expect to improve at the position; however, there is an unusual set of circumstances surrounding this year's class of wideouts for the Huskies.
After missing all but two games last year due to a foot injury, Tommy Lee Lewis was granted a fifth year of eligibility via a medical redshirt. Losing Lewis after only two games last year seemed to be a devastating blow, but returning a now healthy Lewis and his 86 receptions and 1,076 total yards from 2013 will go a long way to help replace Brown's lost production.
North Dakota transfer Kenny Golladay caught 99 passes for 1,313 yards and nine touchdowns in his two years in Grand Forks. "Go Go" quickly became known for his freakishly large hands and ability to make one handed catches with ease. The St. Rita product will add some much needed size to an otherwise smallish group of wide receivers.
Injecting Lewis and Golladay into a group featuring returning senior Juwan Brescacin (445 yards, six touchdowns), emerging junior Aregeros Turner, and the steady Chad Beebe, and the Huskies have a group of five wide receivers in whom they can rely upon.
Finally, sophomores Ezra Saffold (who had six catches in relief of Beebe in the MAC Championship game) and Christian Blake, as well as incoming freshman Spencer Tears who chose Northern Illinois over the likes of Louisville and Nebraska, round out one of the most impressive groups of pass catchers you will find in the conference.
Who replaces Cameron Stingily?
Heading into spring ball, the general consensus was Joel Bouagnon (655 yards, five touchdowns) and Jordan Huff would carry the bulk of the responsibility at tailback. However, Bouagnon missed all of spring practice recovering from knee surgery and Huff missed the majority of it with mononucleosis.
Juniors Keith Harris Jr. and Draco Smith benefited most in their absence. Harris, like Tommy Lee Lewis, also was awarded a medical redshirt this offseason. After bursting onto the scene with a touchdown run in his first career game at Soldier Field, Harris has struggled mightily with a variety of injuries. A productive player when healthy, staying on the field will be key.
Since taking over the reigns as head coach from Dave Doeren before the 2013 Orange Bowl, Rod Carey has consistently used a three man rotation in the backfield. Bouagnon, Huff, and Harris will likely be the trio to get the see the vast majority of carries in the upcoming season.
With Harris' injury history and Bouagnon coming off surgery, a fourth runner emerging is not out of the question. Either Smith, who appeared in four games a freshman before falling down the depth chart last season, or a pair of true freshmen in D.J. Brown (North Little Rock, AR) and Sutton Smith (Saint Charles, MO) could easily work their way into the mix in fall camp.
Consistency key on defense
The Northern Illinois defense put together a roller coaster 2014 season. In eight of their 11 victories, the unit held opponents to 21 points or less. On the contrary, in NIU's three losses opponents put up an average of 46 points per game. Add in Miami and UNLV combining for 75 points in two shootout victories for the Huskies, and the defense had a Jekyll and Hyde feel to it.
With 22 of 25 players listed on the Boca Raton Bowl depth chart returning, the common theme throughout spring ball was consistency. Another year of experience for for an extremely young secondary featuring four freshman last year in Albert Smalls, Shawun Lurry, Mayomi Olootu Jr., and Brandon Mayes should help eliminate some of the mountains and valleys the group experienced the prior season.
Replacing Meehan and Durante
While the vast majority of impact players return, the Huskies will have to replace arguably their two best defensive players.
Defense end Jason Meehan led the team with nine and a half tackles for loss, seven sacks, and six quarterback hurries.
Perez Ford returns as a hybrid pass rusher, where he posted nine tackles for loss and five sacks last year. William Lee and Ben Compton are back at tackle as well, where they combined for six sacks. The group should provide solid penetration from both inside and out in 2015.
Senior defensive end Cameron Clinton-Earl spent the majority of spring ball taking snaps opposite of Ford. A pair of juniors in Ladell Flemming and Austin Smaha will also be rotated in and asked to offset the production of Meehan's departure. After moving to a make-shift 34 scheme last year, you can expect linebackers Rasheen Lemon and Sean Folliard to spend time rushing the passer as well.
Dechane Durante was relied upon to fill Jimmie Ward's shoes as the captain on the back end, and he did so admirably. The Charlotte, North Carolina native led the team in interceptions with four (including a pair in the MAC Championship) and was fourth in tackles.
Brandon Mayes is expected to get the first shot at replacing Durante after totaling 28 tackles as a reserve last season. However, the coaches think extremely highly of sophomore Mycial Allen who missed all of 2014 with a knee injury. After forcing a fumble and recovering it during the Huskie Bowl, Allen positioned himself well to make a run at the starting job come August.
Not able to attend spring practice?
Have no fear, Hustle Belt's own Noran Miller captured some fantastic video of Saturday's action. Keep an eye out for the aforementioned Turner, Golladay, and Allen, who had particularly strong performances.