The Northern Illinois Huskies definitely struggled defensively last season. NIU allowed 418.8 yards per game, which was actually middle of the pack...but they gave up a whopping 38.7 points per game, which was tenth in the MAC and one of the worst in the NCAA (only eight other teams allowed more points per game).
However, as with every single position group for NIU in 2020, the front seven was chalked full of freshmen. And the good news is all of their defensive starters return this season, with the exception of one - former DT Weston Kramer.
The Huskies have 17 players listed as either a defensive end or defensive tackle, so there is certainly some depth here. However, only three of those players aren’t freshmen - Michael Kennedy (RS Jr.), Jalen Pinkney (Jr.), and Jeffery Griffen Jr. (RS So.). And out of those 14 freshmen, twelve are listed as true/covid freshmen, with only two being redshirt freshmen.
Jalen Pinkney joins the Huskies this season and should make a solid impact up front as Weston Kramer’s replacement. The strong-side edge rusher joined the Vanderbilt Commodores right out of high school, in 2017, before joining the UCF Golden Knights the following season. But now he’s primed to make a big impact for the Huskies this season.
Kennedy, the only other upperclassmen, saw action in all six games last season and has played in 26 games in his NIU career. In 2020 he finished ninth on the team with 17 total tackles.
Griffin Jr. played in all six games last year and in ten games the year before. Last year he had 11 tackles, with five of those coming against CMU last season.
Raishein Thomas, who started every game last year, was one of the breakout stars on defense for the Huskies last season. The freshman defensive end was seventh on the team in tackles, with twenty total stops, and added a TFL, a pass break up, and a quarterback hurry.
Pierce Oppong is another freshman who had a great season last year; starting every game AND retaining that freshmen status. Oppong had 16 tackles, 2.5 TFL, half a sack, and a pass break up in 2020 and will look to bump those numbers up in 2021.
Finally, DT James Ester, who started four games last season, is the third freshman that will most likely will see a lot of action again this year. Ester tallied 17 stops, two TFL, two pass breakups, and had a QB hurry and a sack last year.
The linebacking crew might be the deepest group for the Huskies. There are 16 listed linebackers and it’s the only positional group to have multiple seniors playing, as both Lance Deveaux Jr. and Kyle Pugh return (who make up 25% of all seniors on NIU’s roster).
Outside of Pugh and Deveaux Jr., there is only one other non-freshman linebacker listed - Nick Rattin - the other 13 players are all freshmen, none of whom have been redshirted.
Pugh, Deveaux Jr., and Rattin will most likely be the opening day starters and for good reason.
Pugh, who is now in his SEVENTH!! season as a Huskie, has struggled with injuries in his past but will look to stay healthy and dominate the MAC once more. He has started in 34 games for NIU so far and amassed 186 tackles, 12.5 TFL, three sacks, three fumble recoveries, and an interception.
Deveaux Jr. is entering his sixth season at NIU but, like Pugh, has had some injuries keep him sidelined throughout his career. After redshirting in 2019, he started the opener against Buffalo but got injured during the game (but not before netting five tackles and a TFL) and missed the rest of the season. Overall, he has played in 33 games for the Huskies and has 106 stops, 71 of which were solo tackles.
Rattin started all six games last year and the final six of 2019. Overall he has seen action in 18 games already and really stood out last season, finishing fourth on the team with 33 tackles.
Outside of those three, the only other linebackers to record stats last season were freshmen Eddie Jackson and Daveren Rayner, both of whom also started a few games. Jackson replaced Pugh for two games in the middle of 2020 and Rayner took over when Deveaux Jr. when out.
Rayner made a huge impact in 2020, finishing fifth in tackles (27) and adding three pass break ups, two TFLs, and a sack while Jackson had 11 total tackles, a pass break up, and .5 TFL.
If Pugh and Deveaux Jr. can stay healthy this season, the Huskies defense has a great chance of slowing down/stopping opponents...something they didn’t do too often last year.
The front seven are now more experienced and should be bigger, stronger, and faster this season. If it plays out like it should, that could make this defense a force to be reckoned come conference games...especially with a very tough non-conference schedule to get them geared up and prepared.