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State of the Program 2019: Northern Illinois Huskies

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What does the upcoming Hammock Era have in store for Huskies?

Illustration: James H. Jimenez | Photo: Steve Mitchell (USA Today Sports)

The Northern Illinois Huskies are up next in our State of the Program series, which started with the Buffalo Bulls a few weeks ago.

As you probably remember, or have read by now in the previous two NIU articles, 2018 saw the Huskies claim their fourth MAC Championship in eight years after a dramatic comeback against Buffalo. NIU scored 20 unanswered points in the final 15 minutes and 17 seconds to eek out a 30-29 win. But another blowout loss in a bowl game, this time to the UAB Blazers in the Boca Raton bowl, left a familiar bad taste in Huskie fans’ mouths.

Then, after the bowl game, star player Sutton Smith declared for the NFL Draft (where he’d eventually be taken in the sixth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers), head coach Rod Carey left for Temple (taking basically his whole staff with him), and NIU hired former running back Thomas Hammock to replace him.

So, from there, let’s take a look at who NIU has lost and who will be returning this year.


Notable Departures/Arrivals

Key Departures:

Rod Carey (Head Coach) - 52-30 (38-10 MAC) record at NIU. Led NIU to four MACCG, winning two titles. Left for head coaching job at Temple.

Sutton Smith (DE) - led the NCAA in sacks (15) and TFL (26.5), two time All-American, drafted by the Steelers (6th round).

Max Scharping (OT) - four year starter at tackle and guard. Drafted by the Houston Texans (2nd round).

D.J. Brown & Jauan Wesley (WR) - NIU’s top 2 receivers in 2018; combined for 102 catches, 1115 yards, and seven TDs.

Josh Corcoran (DE) - 31 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 10 sacks, and a forced fumble last year. Signed with Los Angeles Chargers as an UDFA.

New Arrivals:

Thomas Hammock (Head Coach) - played at NIU (1999-2002), was a RB coach at NIU, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and with the Baltimore Ravens.

Ross Bowers (QB, senior) - transferred from Cal Golden Bears. Completed 58.6% of his passes and threw for 3095 yards and 18 touchdowns to 12 interceptions at Cal.

Tyrice Richie (WR, junior) - transferred from Dodge City Commuity College, ranked as the 26th best receiver. Had 26 catches for 460 yards and 2 TDs last year.

Fabian McCray (WR) - 3-star recruit that was ranked as the 113th best WR and as the 19th best player from Illinois.

Mariano Valenti (QB) - 3-star recruit that was ranked as the 48th best dual-threat QB. Threw for 1505 yards and 22 TDs as a junior.

Chamaar Smith (DE/OLB) - 3-star recruit that was ranked as the 169th best OLB. Had 90 tackles his senior season and was named to Indiana’s All-State team twice.


Meet the New Coaching Staff

The Huskies enter 2019 with an entirely different coaching staff than when we last saw them.

Here’s a brief look at the Head Coach and his main coordinators:

Thomas Hammock - Head Coach

As mentioned above, Hammock previously played at NIU as a running back. However, a heart condition cut his playing days short and he moved to coaching instead. He has since had stints coaching running backs at NIU, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and in the NFL with the Ravens but now returns to his alma mater for his first head coaching gig.

Derrick Jackson - Associate Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator/Safeties

Jackson has had a long, successful career that started 20 years ago when he coached tight ends for West Georgia. Since then he’s coached at NIU (2005), Michigan State (2006), Syracuse (2007-09), Wake Forrest (2012-16), and Purdue (2017-18) among others.

Eric Eidsness - Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks

From 2010 until last year, Eidness had been in charge of the offense for FCS powerhouse South Dakota State. Under him the Jackrabbits made the FCS playoffs seven straight years (2012-18), making the semi-finals the past two seasons. Last year SDSU averaged 42.5 points per game and had five games where they put up 50 or more points, including a 90-6 drubbing of Arkansas-Pine Bluff.

Robert Wimberly - Executive Assistant Coach/Co-Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers

Before joining the Huskies, Wimberly had been the defensive coordinator at Liberty University since 2012. Before that, he was a safeties coach at Kansas (2010-11) and a linebackers coach at Buffalo (2009).

Rounding out his staff, here are the other assistant coaches:

Daryl Agpalsa - Offensive Line
Atif Austin - Running Backs/Special Teams Coordinator
Jordan Gigli - Defensive Line/Recruiting Coordinator
Houston Jones - Wide Receivers
Travis Moore - Defensive Ends
Tony Sorrentino - Tight Ends
Aaron Wilkins - Cornerbacks
Ryan Napoli - Director of Sports Performance - Football

Hammock hasn’t said too much about what his philosophy and schemes will be this season but it would certainly seem as though more attention will be paid to improving/establishing a strong rushing attack. Unless he releases some new information in the coming weeks, it would appear we might all be kept waiting until August 31st to see how his offense looks.


2019 Season Outlook

You can find the full 2019 season preview here but below is a brief look at the 2019 schedule.

2019 NIU Huskies Football Schedule

Date Opponent Time (CST) TV
Date Opponent Time (CST) TV
Aug. 31st, Saturday vs Illinois State 6:00 p.m. ESPN+
Sept. 7th, Saturday @ Utah 12:00 p.m. PAC12
Sept. 14th, Saturday @ Nebraska 7:00 p.m. FS1
Sept. 28th, Saturday @ Vanderbilt TBD TBA
Oct. 5th, Saturday vs Ball State TBD TBA
Oct. 12th, Saturday @ Ohio University 2:30 p.m. TBA
Oct. 19th, Saturday @ Miami University 1:30 p.m. TBA
Oct. 26th, Saturday vs Akron 2:30 p.m. TBA
Nov. 2nd, Saturday @ Central Michigan TBD TBA
Nov. 13th, Wednesday @ Toledo 7:00 p.m. ESPN2 or ESPNU
Nov. 19th, Tuesday vs Eastern Michigan 6:30 p.m. ESPN2 or ESPNU
Nov. 26th, Tuesday vs Western Michigan 6:00 p.m. ESPNU or ESPN 3/+

Key Games:

August 31st - vs Illinois State Redbirds

NIU’s first game might be against an FCS squad but every Huskie fan is excited to see how they’ll look under Coach Hammock. Unfortunately, the Redbirds have historically been a thorn in NIU’s side as the Huskies have a mere 25-22-9 record against ISU...which isn’t nearly as good as it should be.

September 7th - at Utah Utes

Hammock gets his first taste coaching against P5 teams early on when the Huskies travel to Salt Lake City to face Utah out of the PAC-12. Last season the Utes needed a late pick-six to escape DeKalb and it would be extra sweet if NIU could do the same to them this year.

September 28th - at Vanderbilt Commodores

This game has something unique about it. When the Huskies and Commodores face off, it will be the first time in history that two D-I schools who have African-American athletic directors, football coaches, and basketball coaches meet up. Plus, as far as the non-conference schedule goes...this game might be the best chance at an NIU upset.

October 12th - at Ohio Bobcats

NIU needs this road win if they want to keep their dreams of a MAC title alive. The Bobcats are always a contender in the East and look to be just as dangerous this year.

November 13th - at Toledo Rockets

This rivalry game has decided the MAC West for the past decade. In eight of the last nine years, the winner of this game made it to the MAC Championship Game, with WMU appearance in 2016 the lone outlier.

November 26th - vs Western Michigan Broncos

Like the Toledo game before it, this match up might very well decide the MAC West as well. The three-team race between the Rockets, Huskies, and Broncos culminates here. A Huskie win (barring they’ve beaten Toledo or get help from others) will most likely send NIU to Detroit.


2019 Season Objectives/Storylines

You can find the link to the full article about NIU’s major storylines here, but here’s a brief recap.

Most times when you have a coach leave after winning four conference titles in eight years the fans/team aren’t too happy. And yet, with Carey’s departure and Hammock’s signing, there has been a wave of optimism and hope among fans. It has been a very positive transition for the Huskie faithful.

Objectives:

1. Win the MAC West/MAC Championship Game
Every Huskie player and fan has this mentality...a good season ends with a trip to Detroit and then a bowl game. NIU is in a solid position to continue their run through the MAC. And, if Carey can do it yearly, Hammock should be able to as well.

2. Win a bowl game
The Huskies haven’t won a bowl game since 2011...that’s right, since before Jordan Lynch even started a game. Six straight losses, five of which were blowouts, have NIU fans restless for another bowl victory. However, after being outscored 232-81 in bowl games under Carey, some fans might even be okay with a close lose...but a win is what they’re all looking for.

3. Beat Toledo
If you can’t win the West, at least beat the Rockets. NIU and Toledo are rivals...Rocket fans might not think so, or have the same animosity towards the Huskies as they do towards them...but this game is a big deal in DeKalb every year. Nothing is better than keeping Toledo out of the MAC Championship Game and smiling for a whole year knowing you beat the Rockets.

4. Get a “Boneyard Victory”
NIU has a whole wall dedicated to their “boneyard victories”, or wins over P5 teams. Recently that wall has been filling up and getting another one this year would be a great start to the Hammock Era. NIU will have three attempts this season - Utah, Nebraska, and Vanderbilt - with the possibility for a fourth if they reach a bowl game against a P5 school.


Five-Year Review

When looking at the question “is this team better now than it was five years ago?”, I think many Huskie fans would answer that with a no.

Despite the fact that they’ve won two MAC titles and played in three title games in that span, most would agree that the Huskies have still slipped these past five seasons.

Entering 2014, the Huskies had just lost Jordan Lynch but were coming off three straight seasons of 11 or more wins, an Orange Bowl birth, and a 12-0 start in 2013 before ultimately losing their final two games (the MACCG to Bowling Green and the Poinsettia Bowl to Utah State).

So, in that regard, the Huskies are clearly NOT as good as they were five years ago.

NIU was the cream of the G5 crop back then. And, while they have continued to do mostly well (let’s all forget about 2017), under Carey they have fallen from that high standard of 11-win seasons and BCS/prominent bowl games.

However, I think a lot of fans (including myself) are looking at the hiring of Coach Hammock as a turn in the right direction and a step towards where the Huskies were in 2012/13.

Sure, Hammock hasn’t even coached a single game yet...but the hype around him seems to be well deserved and, if it is, then the Huskies could have their next Joe Novak or Dave Doeren.

And that’s what this program needs. A coach like Novak that cares deeply about NIU. A coach like Doeren that could both recruit well and win games. A coach that actually shows passion for the team and the game. And it’s not hard to see all of those qualities in Coach Hammock, even before he’s taken the field for the first time as head coach.

Only time will tell if it truly is a step forward for the Huskies. But you know what they say at NIU...Forward, Together Forward.