NIU 2014 RECORD: 11-3 (First in the Western Division, defeated Bowling Green in the 2015 MAC Championship Game, 51-17. Lost to Marshall in the Boca Raton Bowl, 52-23)
PRESEASON POLL: Third in the Western Division behind Toledo and Western Michigan
HEAD COACH: Ron Carey – third season (23-6 overall all at NIU)
► The Huskies have won five consecutive MAC Western Division titles. Will their run continue in 2015 as they fend off titles-hungry Toledo and an improving Western Michigan?
► The NIU defense brings back eight starters. Will it be as dominant as the 2012 or 2010 defensive group?
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► How will the Huskies fare at defending national champion Ohio State in late September? It’s arguably the biggest NIU challenge since the Huskies faced Florida State in the 2013 Orange Bowl.
► The Huskies high-powered spread offense averaged over 30 points (31.5) and over 400 yards per game for the fifth straight season in 2014. With the graduation of Jordan Lynch. NIU went into 2014 with three-quarterback battling for the starting position. By the time MAC play rolled around, Carey and offensive coordinator Bob Cole, decided on Drew Hare.
Hare had a solid season completing 59 percent of his passes (194-of-326) for 2,322 yards with 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Like his predecessors, Lynch and Chandler Harnisch, Hare is a good runner. He rushed for 900 yards and eight scores and should get even better in his second season at the helm.
► With the graduation of Cameron Stingly, the running game will look to junior Joel Bounagon Jr., who rushed for 655 yards and five touchdowns in 2014. Look for sophomore Jordan Huff and junior Keith Harris to also see time in the backfield this season.
► The passing game saw the graduation of DaRon Brown and his 68 catches. The Huskies bring back just one starter in senior Juwan Brescacin, who had 31 receptions for 445 yards and six touchdowns a season ago. Fellow senior Tommylee Lewis, another potentially explosive weapon, also returns. Look for junior Chad Beebe who had 21 catches for 219 yards, to be more involved this season, as well as senior TE Desroy Maxwell. A transfer to keep an eye on this season is WR Kenny Golladay, joining NIU out of North Dakota (a successful FCS program).
► The offensive line brings back two starters in seniors Andrew Ness (C) and Aidan Conlan (LG). Three new starters (juniors RG Josh Ruka, RT Lincoln Howard, and LT Levon Myers) did see some action last season, but they may need time to develop and mesh as a unit while the season progresses.
► The NIU defense allowed 392 yards and 25.6 points per outing in 2014. One encouraging note for defensive coordinator Jay Niemann is that eight starters return for 2015.
► The Huskies use a 4-3 alignment and bring back three starters up front. Senior DE Perez Ford, who had 57 total tackles a season ago, is a playmaker. Junior NG Mario Jones and sophomore DE William Lee (2.5 sacks) are also back. Look for senior Cameron-Clayton Earl to be a starter when the season opens at DE.
► The linebackers are the strength of the defense, and two senior starters return: Rasheen Lemon, who had 90 total stops and 2.5 sacks last season, along with standout Boomer Mays (75 tackles, 9 TFL). Look for junior Sam Folliard to step in on the outside. He saw significant playing time last season and notched 65 tackles with 3.5 sacks.
► The defensive secondary brings back three starters. They are led by senior CB Paris Logan, a First Team All-MAC selection in 2014, with 77 tackles, an interception and 15 pass breakups. Joining him is senior SS Marlon Moore, who led the Huskies in tackles last season with 99, along with an interception and 3.5 sacks. Junior SS Anthony Brooks recorded 28 total stops and two interceptions. Look for sophomores Brandon Mayes and Jimmy Russell to battle for the free safety position.
► "We have a very experienced group coming back,” said NIU cornerbacks coach Kelvin Sigler. “We played a lot of guys last year, at least five guys. Three of them were true freshmen. We have Paris Logan back and Anthony Brooks. I think we have a chance to have a really good group back there.”
Logan, the unquestioned leader of the group, was second on the team in interceptions with three last year and was fourth on the team in tackles with 77. He came up with some big interceptions for the Huskies in 2014 and he will be relied upon this year to help bring some of the younger corners along.
“Paris does a great job with the young guys and with the defense overall,” Sigler said. “He got with the younger over the summer and taught them the little things we do defensively at cornerback. He’s been a big mentor to the guys.”
Brooks and Smalls battled for the starting position for the other cornerback spot early last season before Brooks won the job midway through the season. He recorded two interceptions and finished with 28 tackles. Smalls appeared in all 14 games for NIU last year, starting the first six, and recorded 21 tackles. As they pushed each other last year, they are doing the same thing in camp this year.
►Tyler Wedel, who handled putting and place kicking over the past two campaigns, has graduated. Sophomore Christian Hagan does have some game experience as he filled in when Wedel was injured, hitting 9-of-12 on field goals and a perfect 23-of-23 on extra points.
► The punting chores look to be going to redshirt freshman Peter Deppe. He is the only punter listed on the pre-season depth chart and was a standout prep punter, averaging 44 yards a boot as a senior in 2013.
► The return game, which was sole property of Tommylee Lewis in 2012 and 2013, was changed a season ago with Chad Beebe as the punt returner. He averaged 8.2 yards per return, while kickoff returns fell to Aregeros Turner. he averaged 20.8 yards per return a season ago.
► The Huskies have had a target on them for the past five seasons and still came out on top in the Western Division. They saw their 26-game regular season winning streak end last season at Arkansas. They somehow found a way to win in home games over Kent State, Toledo, and Ohio, although they had a surprising stumble at Central Michigan in October. The Huskies proved up to the task in crunch time, winning their last six games and beating BGSU in the title game in Detroit.
► The 2015 schedule starts with home games against UNLV and FCS member before heading to Columbus to battle the defending national champion Buckeyes. The game begins a three-game road trip that also goes to Boston College as well as the MAC opener at Central Michigan. Their crossover games are at Miami and Ohio at home, while going on the road to Buffalo. Within the division they face both Toledo and Western Michigan on the road.