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Northern Illinois football is a lesson in recruiting

With college football recruiting becoming more popular by the day, the Northern Illinois Huskies continue to dominate the MAC despite mediocre recruiting rankings

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

In the world of college athletics, recruiting reigns supreme. How did P.J. Fleck go from a position coach to one of the hottest coaching commodities in the country seemingly overnight? He recruits as well as anyone ever has in the MAC. How has John Calipari been wildly successful no matter the school he is coaching? He is the best recruiter in all of college basketball.

Florida State football had 29 players drafted to the NFL the last three years, including Jameis Winston going number one overall this year. The reason? They are pulling in top five recruiting classes year in and year out.

Recruiting is key in college athletics, and it is why national signing day in football continues to increase in popularity every year. Here at Hustle Belt, we have an entire section dedicated to just recruiting. To see sustained success, you have to ink a highly regarded class in February. Or do you?

That brings us to the Northern Illinois Huskies. The unquestioned top dog of the Mid-American Conference, the Huskies have made five consecutive MAC Championship appearances (winning three) despite having three different head coaches and three different quarterbacks. You can attribute their success to talent overcoming coaching changes, correct? Not if you listen to the experts.

In Rod Carey's giant bag of coachisms, you will not find too many he uses more than "our seniors to need play like seniors." It is a belief shared by many coaches around the country. To have a successful team, your seniors need to play well and be leaders. With that being said, here is a look at how each of the last five senior classes were rated coming out of high school compared to their results of the field.


The 2010 season began Northern Illinois' current stretch of dominance in the MAC. After being benched in a season opening loss to Iowa State, Chandler Harnish rebounded to become one of the best signal callers in the conference. Harnish, combined with former walk-on and eventual MAC MVP Chad Spann to create the most efficient offense in school history. The Huskies posted 11 wins including triumphs at Minnesota and in the Humanitarian Bowl over Fresno State.

The group of seniors, led by Alex Kube and Mike Sobol, were recruited by Joe Novak in 2006. According to Rivals, the class ranked 11th out of thirteen teams in the MAC. The only player who was rated higher than a two-star was offensive lineman Panan Tense, who ended up having no impact in DeKalb.


After losing Jerry Kill to Minnesota shortly after falling to Miami in the 2010 MAC Championship, Dave Doeren took over as head coach and led the Huskies to their second straight 11-win season, including victories in the final nine games. After rallying from 20-0 down at halftime, Mathew Sims kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired to capture NIU's first MAC Championship in 28 years.

The 2011 senior class was Joe Novak's farewell present to NIU, and it was a good one. The group went on to become the winningest class in school history, and featured the likes of Chandler Harnish, Nathan PalmerTrevor Olson, Scott Wedige, and Pat Schiller. Of the nineteen players Novak inked in 2007, fifteen of them went on to start for the Huskies. Much like the 2010 senior class, the group was ranked third worst recruiting class in the MAC, only ahead of Buffalo and then transitional school UMASS.


After only throwing for 56 yards in an 18-17 loss to Iowa, new starting quarterback Jordan Lynch led the Huskies to twelve consecutive wins, including a thrilling 44-37 double overtime victory against #18 Kent State in the MAC Championship. The Huskies became the first MAC school to earn a BCS bowl bid, falling to Florida State 31-10 in the Discover Orange Bowl.

The 2012 seniors were a small class inked by Jerry Kill in his first year as head coach. He signed a group of thirteen on national signing day, including solid contributors Logan Pegram, Tommy Davis, and Me'co Brown. The class ranked second to last in the conference by rivals, and the gem of the class turned out to be walkon cornerback Rashaan Melvin.


With all world quarterback Jordan Lynch and stand out safety Jimmie Ward returning, expectations were as high as ever entering the 2013 season. Dave Doeren left for NC State, but then Athletic Director Jeff Compher stayed in house and hired Rod Carey as his replacement. With Carey back as well as defensive coordinator Jay Niemann, NIU was able to keep both their offensive and defensive systems similar and hit the ground running as a result.

Lynch threw three touchdown passes in the opener to avenge the loss to Iowa the previous year, and three weeks later NIU harpooned Purdue 55-24, becoming the first MAC team ever to beat two Big Ten schools in the same regular season. Lynch broke the record for rushing yards by a quarterback in a win over Central Michigan only to break his own record in the final regular season game of the year, sinking Western Michigan in the process. The Huskies once again posted twelve victories, but ended the season on a sour note by getting steamrolled by Bowling Green in Detroit and falling to Utah State in the Poinsettia Bowl.

After a poor inaugural recruiting class in DeKalb, Jerry Kill followed up with an extremely strong class in 2009. In addition to Heisman finalist Jordan Lynch, Kill inked main cogs Martel Moore, Perez AshfordAnthony WellsNabal JeffersonAlan Baxter, and Tyrone Clark. Of the 26 signees, nineteen went on to be starters, but the class still only ranked 7th out of 13 in the MAC.


After losing Heisman Finalist Jordan Lynch and first round pick Jimmie Ward, 2014 was expected to be a rebuilding year for the Huskies. After a long three way quarterback derby in the fall, Drew Hare came off the bench in the second half to lead the Huskies to a 23-15 victory in Evanston over Northwestern. A quality blend of offense, defense, and a bit of luck helped NIU earn a fifth straight trip to Detroit, where they put together their best effort of the season in a 51-17 victory over Bowling Green, capturing a third championship in four years.

The 2010 recruiting class was easily the highest rated class of the five. Jerry Kill brought in a quality group including the likes of Da'Ron Brown, Tyler Pitt, Tyler Loos, Deachane Durante, Akeem Daniels, and Luke Eakes. Of the five consecutive western division championship teams, this group was the only recruiting class that ranked in the top half of the MAC.

Hidden Gems

Ask Huskie fans to put together a Mt. Rushmore for NIU football and three of the most popular answers would be Jordan Lynch, Chandler Harnish, and Michael Turner. Because of his NFL success, Turner is the most well known Huskie, and Harnish and Lynch were the backbone of the most successful run in program history.

The three share a common bond other than being great players for Northern Illinois; they all had one FBS scholarship offer coming out of high school.

Lynch was primarily an option quarterback at Mt. Carmel (IL), who received interest from the likes of Iowa, Kansas State, and Northwestern as a walkon defensive back. Jerry Kill offered him a scholarship and a chance to play quarterback at NIU, and Lynch took the opportunity and (literally) ran with it.

Harnish was ranked the #12 prospect in the state of Indiana coming out of Norwell High School. Ball State and Purdue showed interest, but never offered. Harnish received an offer from Joe Novak, and although NIU's pro style offense at the time did not fit Harnish's skill set, his options were limited. After Novak retired, Harnish flourished as a four-year starter in the spread offense before being drafted by his hometown Colts in the 2012 NFL draft.

The most baffling non-offer of the three was Michael Turner. Coming out of North Chicago (IL) High School, Turner was not only nicknamed "The Burner" for his speed, but he is also built like a house of bricks. Despite his rare combination of size and speed, Turner received very little attention from FBS programs. Joe Novak was there to scoop up Turner, who rewarded Novak by breaking multiple school rushing records and helped NIU to a 7-0 start and #12 BCS ranking in 2003.


A look into the numbers gives you an idea the success goes beyond luck. According to 247 sports, the two MAC recruiting giants Toledo and WMU have offered 203 and 106 scholarships respectively for the 2016 class already. In-state Illinois has already offered 234 scholarships. NIU has offered a total of 25 scholarships to this point, an almost shockingly low number compared to their peers.

More so than any other school in America, NIU is stingy with their scholarship offers. Even a school as successful as Alabama already has offered 195 scholarships. Working with a smaller recruiting budget and smaller talent base, the Huskies work to identify not only talent, but true scheme fits for their system.

The best example of this is Lynch. In many systems, Lynch would have never succeeded as a quarterback. However, Jerry Kill saw him as a fit for his spread option system. When Kill departed, Dave Doeren implemented a system to fit his skill even more.

Gone was the read option Chandler Harnish ran to perfection as a senior, and Joe Novak's "pro-style" offense had become a distant memory. Instead, quarterback power became the most successful and relied upon play in the playbook. The entire offense in Lynch's two season was based off the quarterback power concept.

The thought process is not dissimilar to the "Moneyball" theory popularized by Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics. When working with a smaller budget, find underappreciated talent and skills and use them to your advantage.

"The Four Horsemen"

The 2010 recruiting class put together by head coach Jerry Kill and his staff was one of the most highly regarded classes in Northern Illinois history. The crowned jewels of the class were four three star linebackers. Jamaal Bass (Miramar, FL), Greg Barksdale (University Heights, IL), Mike Hellams (Bolingbrook, IL), and Cameron Stingily (Romeoville, IL) had multiple BCS offers and were expected to anchor the NIU defense for years to come.

Bass went on to be a three-year starter before a knee injury sidelined him for his senior season, but Barksdale, Hellams, and Stingily never started a single game at linebacker. Stingily went on to have a very successful two seasons as a runningback, but only after moving to offense because he could not find his way on the field defensively.

There was another linebacker in the 2010 class that did find his way onto the field, however. After playing safety at Geneva High School, lightly recruited Michael Santacaterina came to DeKalb and started games in all four season, including filling in for the suspended Bass as a freshman. As other, more highly touted prospects left the program or switched positions, Santacaterina was a key contributor to three MAC Championship defenses and played in an Orange Bowl.

Recent Misses

Charlie Miller, Deion Hallmon, and David Senior were a trio of Florida recruits anointed the future of NIU football.

Miller, a three-star wide receiver from Vero Beach, was dripping with potential. After being primarily a basketball player, he switched to football his final year of high school. Despite being new to the game, Miller used his blinding speed to post 966 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior. He chose NIU over offers from Iowa State, Minnesota, and Vanderbilt and was expected to make an immediate impact for the Huskies. However, he fell behind walk-on Jacob Brinlee on the depth in 2012, and transferred after the arrivals of Aregeros Turner and Chad Beebe in 2013 before ever playing a down.

Senior, another Florida wide receiver, committed to Northern Illinois over offers from Indiana, Wisconsin, and Nebraska. The Fort Lauderdale native redshirted in 2014 while true freshmen Christian Blake and Ezra Saffold saw major playing time. Senior announced he would transfer recently, saying "I didn't come up here to watch somebody I thought I was better than."

Hallmon was arguably the highest regarded recruit to ever sign with NIU. The six-foot cornerback from Weston, Florida had over 35 offers including from the likes of Wisconsin, UCLA, South Carolina, and Nebraska to name a few. Much like Miller and Senior, Hallmon quickly fell behind freshmen Albert Smalls, Mayomi Olootu, and Shawun Lurry on the depth chart and left the program after just one year in DeKalb.

Recruiting Still Matters

Recruiting is still the lifeblood of any successful intercollegiate athletics program. For the higher rated prospects, recruiting services do an excellent job. The vast majority of first round draft picks are four or five star recruits.

However, in the case of so called "mid majors" with smaller recruiting budgets, you have to find away to adapt to weaknesses. In Northern Illinois' case, they have found a way to build one of the most successful college football programs in America off of overlooked and underrated prospects.

For every highly touted prospect who busts, there is a Chandler Harnish or Michael Turner who is barely recruited and ends up making a name for themselves.

And in the Huskies' case, the more underappreciated a player is, the more success he seems to find.