The Northern Illinois Huskies have been one of the MAC’s most consistent and successful teams but, over the off season, the Huskies found themselves losing quite a few pieces from their team.
NIU ended 2018 with an 8-6 record but was able to claim another MAC Championship. After going 8-4 (6-2 MAC) in the regular season, they found themselves back in the MAC Champions Game for the seventh time in the last nine years, where they took on the heavily favored Buffalo Bulls. NIU started slow but found a way to erase a 19-point deficit in the final 16 minutes and claimed a 30-29 victory, hoisting the trophy for the fourth time since 2011. Then, in typical Rod Carey fashion, the Huskies got blown out in their bowl game, losing 37-13 to the UAB Blazers in the Boca Raton Bowl.
If you’ve been hiding under a rock since that terrible performance against UAB (which I personally wouldn’t blame you for doing), there’s some things you might not have heard.
First, in December, star defensive end, Sutton Smith, decided to forego his senior year and declare for the NFL draft.
Then, one month later, after six years in DeKalb, Rod Carey announced he would be leaving for Temple!
With Carey gone, that led to a search for a new coach and, on January 18th, it was announced that former-Huskie halfback Thomas Hammock would take over the reigns as head coach. Over the next few weeks he assembled his staff, all of which are new to NIU.
That should have brought you up to date, but still begs the question...what are the big storylines for 2019?
1. How will Coach Hammock change the Huskies schemes?
We’re not quite sure yet as to what offensive and defensive schemes the Huskies will use this upcoming season but it’s a safe bet to assume that the running game will be revamped and more utilized than in previous years.
Hammock, a former tailback and RB coach for teams like the Wisconsin Badgers and the Baltimore Ravens, has shown that he is great at improving a rushing attack. At Wisconsin, the Badgers were top-2 every year in the B1G in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. When he left for the Ravens, Baltimore was 30th in the NFL in rushing...last year they finished second.
Whatever changes he makes, it’s a safe bet to think the rushing attack will be improved and utilized much more than in years past.
2. How effective will Sutton Smith’s replacement be?
After tearing through the NCAA and leading the country in sacks and TFLs in back-to-back season, Sutton Smith left NIU early and found himself drafted by the Steelers in the sixth round this April.
With him gone and Josh Corcoran, the other defensive end, graduating, the Huskies are left with some big shoes to fill up front.
On their spring roster, NIU has five DEs listed, four of which saw time last year. Most likely senior Quintin Wynne and junior Matt Lorbeck will get the nod to start. Both of them had decent years and saw action in all 14 games last year. Wynne had 26 tackles, 7.5 TFL, two sacks, and a fumble recovery while Lorbeck has 21 stops, 6.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, and forced and recovered a fumble.
While those numbers aren’t up to Smith’s, they’re certainly solid for a pair of players that were backups last year. The two should be able to make a bigger impact this year and, with NIU returning their interior linemen as well, the Huskies front four should still be able to wreak havoc on the MAC and others.
3. Can NIU repeat as MAC Champs/win a bowl game under Hammock?
Rod Carey was a mixed bag at NIU. He was able to keep the Huskies rolling through the MAC and had a 38-10 (79.2%) record in conference games, which is actually really remarkable. But, conversely, he couldn’t win a bowl game to save his life. The Huskies were 0-6 with him in bowl games, and only one of those was within 20 points. NIU was outscored 232-81 and outgained 2100-1044 in those six games...it’s hard to do worse than that in bowl games.
Only time will tell if his leaving was good or bad for NIU (or, most likely, a mixture of both) but one of the biggest things this year will be seeing how well Hammock has the Huskies playing against MAC squads.
Hammock has inherited all the pieces needed to keep this well-oiled machine running through the MAC...so the Huskies should still be a top-tier team this season. But getting them to win year after year, as Carey did, will be the biggest challenge for Hammock.
It’s said that Hammock is a great recruiter, which is something Carey is certainly not known for. That’s great news for Huskie fans because they’ve watched their talent pool seem to slip some under Carey, who mostly relied on transfers to come in and make an impact for a season or two.
If Hammock can recruit as well as he did at Minnesota/Wisconsin AND keep the Huskies winning MAC titles, he just might better than Dave Doeren or Joe Novak...two coaches most Huskie fans still miss dearly.
For Hammock’s first year though, I think winning either the MAC West or a bowl game would be a good start.
Sure, winning both would be preferred. And, while I can’t speak for all fans, I would consider this season a success by either getting to the MAC Championship Game or taking home a post-season trophy.