7-1 MAC West (1st)
Head Coach: Rod Carey
2014 MAC Media Preseason Pick – Second in MAC West
Google the phrase “NIU quarterback situation unsettled” and you will find several articles related to this year’s Northern Illinois football scenario. You might also, however, note several similar headlines from the past decade or so. The Huskies managed to sort some of those situations quite well with stars like Chandler Harnish and Jordan Lynch.
With Lynch, who finished third in the Heisman Trophy balloting last year, now gone, who will step up to fill those shoes in 2014? Spring practice didn’t exactly yield a definitive frontrunner, and so the position battle carried over into fall camp. However, a simpler question for this season is: How good can the Huskies be with something less than a superstar at quarterback?
With eight starters returning, the offense should still be potent regardless of who ends up taking snaps. The Huskies have an experienced front line that can pave the way for any of several talented running backs. There is also talent in an experienced and productive receiving corps. Truly, opponents are no doubt glad Lynch has moved on, but the Huskies have more than enough weapons to remain a very strong offense – especially in the MAC West.
It all starts up front – more than ever this year. The O-line includes three seniors and two juniors, with four returning starters overall. Left tackle Tyler Loos, a First Team All-MAC selection in 2013, is among the returnees. Add in returning starter Luke Eakes (6-3, 258) at a tight end spot, and you get a unit that is primed for production.
Senior Cameron Stingily (6-1, 235), who rushed for 1,119 yards in 2013, is a great combination of speed and size. He has already shown an ability to carry the load and produce big games. He registered 266 yards on 37 carries last year against Kent State and averaged 8.1 ypc while picking up 146 yards against rival Toledo. With Lynch gone, Stingily will likely get the call a lot. Another talented RB who could get a significant share of carries is Akeem Daniels. The 5-7, 189-pound senior got significant experience in 2012, including the MAC title game and Orange Bowl. He was, however, redshirted last year due to injury.
“Akeem is awesome in every sense of the word and is a great football player. There's nothing he can't do with the ball in his hands," said running backs coach Kelton Copeland.
There is actually more talent behind those two, which is not all that surprising for a program that led the MAC in rushing four of the last five seasons. Sure, Lynch had a lot to do with that, but the Huskies are serious about the run in general.
"Our biggest strength is that we have so much diversity. Anyone who's watched us over the years, knows that we like to run multiple offensive sets," Copeland said. "The bottom line is we're going to give the ball to a lot of different players and give them a chance to make plays.”
In addition to some talented runners, there are also a number of experienced playmakers to lead the receiving corps.
TommyLee Lewis (5-7, 155, SR) is coming off a big year culminated by All-MAC First Team honors. He filled a number of roles, among them receiver, punt and kickoff returner. Lewis even added a touchdown pass to Lynch. In all, Lewis totaled 1,405 all-purpose yards. He was second in the MAC in receptions with 86 for 715 yards and three touchdowns.
Classmate Da’Ron Brown, meanwhile, earned All-MAC Second Team honors in 2013. The 6-0, 196-pound receiver led NIU with 752 receiving yards on 46 catches that included nine TDs. He was injured late in the season and played sparingly after that.
As for somebody to get them the ball, the group includes junior Matt McIntosh, Drew Hare (So) and Anthony Maddie (So). When asked at MAC Media Day if he might try splitting quarterback duties, Carey indicated he wasn’t inclined to do that.
“No. I’m not a two-quarterback guy,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate. For the last five years, we’ve probably had some of the top quarterback play in the nation. Who ever THAT guy is, that needs to be the guy. … We need to let him lead and let him be himself.”
He added. “We knew Jordan (Lynch) was going to be pretty good – just no one else did. Well, these three guys (competing for the job now) are going to be good. We just don’t know who the ONE guy is yet.”
Time will tell how the 2014 quarterback competition shakes out, but whoever gets the gig, he will be surrounded by a lot of talent.
While the loss of three All-MAC performers (two first team, one second team) on offense might inspire a few questions, there are more to be found on defense. That unit also took some significant hits with graduation. Among them were first teamers Ken Bishop (OL) and Jimmy Ward (DB).
The latter was an Associated Press Third Team All-American who was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers with the 30th pick of the 2014 NFL draft. He led the Huskies in tackles (95), interceptions (7) and pass deflections (12) in 2013. Bishop, meanwhile, registered 70 tackles out of the noseguard position and was drafted (7th round) by the Dallas Cowboys. Defensive lineman Joe Windsor (All-MAC Third Team) is also departed, so there is some work to be done up front.
The same goes with defensive backfield. Redshirt junior Paris Logan (5-9, 184) and sophomore Anthony Brooks (5-11, 189) will be holding down the corner spots – backed up by redshirt freshmen. Marlon Moore (5-9, 192, Jr) heads to safety after starting eight games at cornerback last year. He was second on NIU and ninth in the MAC in passes defended. Sophomore Anthony Brooks (5-11, 189) figures at the other safety spot.
Looking at the big picture on defense, linebacker figures to be the strength. Senior Jamaal Bass (5-10, 214) earned First Team All-MAC honors last year when he registered 87 hits despite missing one game.
Boomer Mays, a 6-0, 243-pound redshirt junior, started all 14 contests at middle linebacker in 2013. His 82 tackles ranked third on the team. He had 5.5 TFL, 2 sacks and an interception in the end zone – not bad for somebody originally signed primarily to be a long snapper.
Jamaal Payton, a 6-0, 229-pound sophomore, figures at the other linebacking spot. He appeared in 11 contests with two starts at outside LB in 2013 when he made 27 solo stops (43 total tackles).
Placekicker Mathew Sims has completed his NIU career, so punter Tyler Wedel will handle both jobs this time around. Wedel, who booted a 54-yard field goal in Wisconsin’s high school playoffs and was all-state as a prep punter, took over placekicking duties versus Akron and Central Michigan in 2013. He converted on three of five FG opportunities (long of 42) and all eight PATs. He had a 59.8-yard average on kickoffs to rank fifth in the MAC.
There are plenty of reasons to believe the Huskies can make another run at a MAC West title. Sure, NIU lost some outstanding players, but so did the other West Division contenders. The conference schedule, in particular, just doesn’t look that tough for a team that returns so much. Unless Northern’s turnover margin (plus-13, 2nd best in MAC) takes a serious dive, a relatively healthy NIU team will likely have a lot riding on its Nov. 11 matchup at Toledo.