Team preview: Northern Illinois
Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2006 college football season, exclusively on Insider.
It was all right within Northern Illinois' grasp. After finally getting by West division nemesis Toledo during the regular season, the Huskies earned a crack at their first MAC Championship, and were within minutes of bringing home that trophy, too. But Akron had a different ending in mind last December, and with 10 seconds left in the game, quarterback Luke Getsy threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon to tie the score at 30. Jason Swiger's extra point broke that deadlock -- and the hearts of thousands of Huskie faithful who were dreaming of a second straight bowl bid.
"It's truly a game of inches," said NIU head coach Joe Novak, whose team came up just short on a pass play to Sam Hurd that would have prevented Akron from getting the ball back. "That's football and that's life."
The Huskies moved on after that loss, but Novak hopes the players -- especially the seniors -- who return from last year's squad don't forget how it felt."I hope that [game] is a real motivator for them," he said. "We have a great group of seniors coming back." One of those players could be one of the greatest to ever slip on an NIU uniform. Senior tailback Garrett Wolfe, who is the nation's top returning rusher (175.6 yards per game), brings some excitement to the NIU backfield once again. "He ranks right up there," Novak said of the preseason Playboy All-American. "He's a fast, instinctive kid who has a great feel for the game and great vision. Those are things you don't coach." Wolfe will have a different look to his offensive line this fall, but monster senior tackle Doug Free is back to pave the way. The middle of the line will be the problem, with two new starters and one player returning from a year off. NIU ranked second in the MAC and 16th in the country in rushing last season with 207.2 yards per game. The Huskies also held the same rankings for total offense with 444.2 yards per game. Of course, a good running game needs to be complemented by a decent passing game to keep the opposition's defense honest, and that was one of the Huskies' big offseason question marks. Senior Phil Horvath and sophomore Dan Nicholson took their quarterback battle into summer workouts and it could come down to the wire on who starts. Whoever lands the job will have a few new receivers to break in. On the defensive side, the Huskies return seven members from a unit that ranked second in the MAC in scoring defense (22.8 points per game), fourth against the run (147.2 ypg) and eighth against the pass (222.6 ypg). The top two players from that unit, defensive tackle Quince Holman and strong safety Ray Smith, are gone, leaving the Huskies without a star player on defense. But Novak likes the line's potential and the secondary has a few veterans, including free safety Dustin Utschig and twin cornerbacks Adriel and Alvah Hansbro. NIU hosted a 4-3 defensive summit in the offseason with Michigan State and UTEP among the teams in attendance. Novak downplayed that teams were there to learn from the Huskies, who have prided themselves on defense under their current head coach. "We did it at Indiana," Novak said. "It's a chance for teams to exchange ideas." It wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing for teams to want TO copy Novak's Huskies. The program has six consecutive winning seasons and has gone from MAC cellar dweller to an annual contender for the West crown. In addition to Novak returning for his 11th season, the core of the assistant coaches is also back, including offensive coordinator John Bond and defensive coordinator Denny Doornbos. The one change on offense is Carnelius Cruz, who spent five years as the running backs coach at New Hampshire. Cruz replaces Marquis Mosely, who left for Miami (Fla.). On defense, Jeff Phelps arrives from NCAA Division II Hillsdale (Mich.) College to replace Derrick Jackson, who left for Michigan State, as the line coach. Also, John Hauser was promoted from defensive assistant to secondary coach, replacing Steve Bernstein, who went to Virginia. It's not by coincidence that BCS schools raid Novak's staff. The Huskies open the 2006 season by continuing their tour of the Big Ten -- this time with a trip to Columbus, Ohio to play Ohio State for the first time. Last year NIU opened in the Big House against Michigan and lost 33-17. After the road trip, there are three straight home games with Ohio, Buffalo and Indiana State. The schedule picks up at the end of September with three consecutive road games, starting with Ball State, which stunned the Huskies 31-17 last season. NIU also goes to play MAC East power Miami (Ohio) and then to Western Michigan. After non-league foes Temple and Iowa, there are three MAC West games to close the season beginning with rival Toledo in DeKalb. "You always have to talk about Toledo [when it comes to favorites in the West]," Novak said. The Huskies ended an 11-game losing streak with a 35-17 victory over Toledo last October, which opened the door for NIU to play in the MAC Championship. UT and NIU both finished 6-2 in the conference, but the Huskies had the tiebreaker edge, and used it to earn their first championship appearance.
Once again the Huskies have a debate at quarterback going into a season, only this year, Novak's staff has two players to pick from instead of three. Senior Phil Horvath (6-3, 197) started nine games in 2005 before breaking his left (non-throwing) arm against Central Michigan and missing the rest of the season. When Horvath did play, he was a steady veteran that threw for 2,001 yards on 168-of-238 passing with 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Horvath led Division I-A quarterbacks in completion percentage (.706) and was sixth in pass efficiency rating (159.45). Both were school records. Horvath is back this year, so why is there a controversy? Sophomore Dan Nicholson (6-2, 183) is the reason Novak's quarterback decision will likely go down to the wire. The gunslinger from Chicago stepped into the starting lineup and led NIU to wins over CMU, Toledo (on the road) and Western Michigan -- and almost beat Akron in the title game, too. Nicholson finished 59-of-95 passing for 831 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions in six games, which included three starts. "Dan stepped right in there," Novak said. "[His play] has made it difficult for us." Now the Huskies have to decide if they prefer the steady leadership from Horvath on offense, or the big arm and big play potential Nicholson can provide. "We don't have to decide today," Novak said after spring workouts. "It's good to keep the carrot [of starting] out there for both of them." Redshirt freshman Ryan Morris (6-2, 177) figures to hold a clipboard as the third quarterback this fall, but incoming freshman Billy Lowe (6-3, 214) could push for that job. Lowe, a southpaw, arrives from Lakeland, Fla., where he ran the offense for a state champion team that finished 15-0 and was selected the USA Today national champion. Lowe originally committed to Florida Atlantic, but the converted linebacker signed with NIU instead. "Some fans have already locked on to him and think we are bringing in Bob Griese," Novak said. "He's played one year at quarterback and he's still raw."
There's no debate who will be carrying the ball for the Huskies this season, only who will be backing up star senior Garrett Wolfe (5-7, 173). Wolfe might be a dark horse again for the Heisman Trophy. He was the only MAC player to receive votes for the award last season after rushing for 1,580 yards and 16 touchdowns in nine games. In the MAC Championship, he ran for 270 yards on 42 carries. In addition to being the top returning rusher in the country, Wolfe also is No. 1 in all-purpose yards (200.2 ypg) and active career rushing yards (3,236). Last season, he did his damage while battling a shoulder and a knee injury, with the former requiring surgery in the offseason that kept him out of spring ball. "We didn't need to see Garrett in the spring," Novak said. "I think we know what he can do out there." Wolfe enters the 2006 season as a Blue Ribbon and Playboy All-American and considered one of the top tailback prospects for the NFL despite his diminutive frame. "I hope he gets a chance," said Novak, who plans to let Wolfe return kicks in summer practice to prepare for the next level. Wolfe will not return kicks during the season, though. "At 170 pounds, [his size] is always going to be a concern," Novak said. One thing the Huskies want to do this season is reduce Wolfe's workload to 25-30 carries per game, but they need to find an adequate backup to replace A.J. Harris (58 rushes for 351 yards and five touchdowns). Sophomore Montell Clanton (5-9, 177) and junior Cas Prime (6-1, 229) are the top two contenders for Harris' job. Clanton, who has a similar style to Wolfe, ran for 102 yards on 21 carries last season, while Prime has battled injuries much of his collegiate career. Prime brings a different look to the backfield with his downfield running and size. Redshirt freshman Justin Anderson (5-11, 203) is inexperienced, but the Huskies like his potential. "I have more confidence in this group this year than I did last year," Novak said. Freshman Ricky Crider (5-9, 185) arrived in the summer from Reitz High in Evansville, Ind., where he rushed for more than 6,300 yards to rank ninth all-time in the state.
Last year's top receivers, Sam Hurd and Shatone Powers, are gone, but the Huskies could have a star in the making in sophomore Britt Davis (6-2, 195). Davis entered the summer of 2005 a contender for the quarterback position along with Nicholson and Horvath, but when the latter pulled ahead in the race, a position change was made. "We approached him the year before [about a change] & and he just wants to play," Novak said. "He has a lot potential, but also has a ways to go." Davis went pretty far in his first season as a receiver with a school-record 42 receptions for 441 yards and three touchdowns. He caught a pass in all 12 games, started nine times at flanker, and caught a season-high eight passes against Ball State. The team will have a youth movement at the other receiver spots, which should include an infusion of speed. Sophomores Marcus Perez (5-11, 172) and Matt Simon (6-2, 195) both return after sitting out last season. Perez missed the year because of academics, while Simon is coming off an ankle fracture. Lone senior Jarret Carter (6-3, 200) and sophomore Greg Turner (6-0, 180), who combined for six catches for 70 yards last season, are also vying for playing time. Redshirt freshmen Preston Williams (5-11, 171) and Orlando Moore (5-11, 171) were impressive in the spring, while sophomore Evans Adonis (6-0, 165) and redshirt freshman Ryan Gierke (5-10, 176) add some depth at the position. Two in-state freshmen, Tyler Clasey (6-1, 187) from Centennial High and Marcus Lewis (6-2, 195) from Warren Township, could be a year away from making an impact. The Huskies are flexible in their formations and sometimes go with a double tight end set. That won't be a problem this season; there's plenty of talent at the position. Senior Jake Nordin (6-3, 258) comes off a second-team All-MAC season with 26 catches for 266 yards and one score. Junior Brandon Davis (6-4, 261) gives the team a second viable option, scoring on two of his three catches last season. Sophomores David Koronkiewicz (6-3, 253) and Brandon Beal (6-3, 227) provide some unproven depth at the position. Two newcomers are freshmen Bryan Beckner (6-4, 235) and Vernon Sims (6-5, 252) from Illinois' Kankakee Bishop McNamara High and Boylan High, respectively. Both played also played at defensive end in high school.
Not everyone is back on the line from last season, but the best player is -- senior left tackle Doug Free (6-7, 302). "He has a chance to be the highest draft pick ever to play here," said Novak, who converted Free from tight end to an All-MAC first-teamer in three seasons. "He's a good player and he has a good nasty streak to him." Free has been a fixture on the offensive line since 2003, carrying a 36-game starting streak into this season. And even though he's a tackle now, Novak said Free still has his pass-catching skills. "I think he could still play tight end," Novak said. For now, the Huskies need him at tackle, especially without All-MAC first-team guard Ben Lueck and two-year starting center Brian Van Acker around. Starting right guard Jake Ebenhoch is also gone. "We are not going to be quite as experienced or physical on the line," Novak said. No, but the Huskies hope they have another Doug Free in the making in sophomore right tackle John Brost (6-6, 296), who started all 12 games last season. They also return senior Matt Rogers (6-4, 277), who missed a season because of academic issues and opened the door for Brost at tackle. Rogers is expected to start at right guard this season. The Huskies don't have the luxury of experience at the other two line spots. redshirt freshman Eddie Adamski (6-2, 265) earned the center job with his physical play in the spring. At left guard, junior Chris Acevedo (6-5, 304) is penciled in as the starter, but junior Matt Biondi (6-5, 335) has the chance to unseat him. Both could be pushed by redshirt freshmen Tony Holmes (6-6, 293) and Kevin Skatrud (6-6, 314), along with sophomore Ryan Tuggle (6-4, 265). Two more redshirt freshmen, Tim Mayerbock (6-4, 313) and center Ethan Gill (6-4, 272), provide more depth. "I think they'll be pretty good," Novak said of his young linemen. That group could also include three incoming freshmen, who were all-state high school players. Guard Mike Krause (6-3, 270) arrives from Germantown, Wis., while center Jason Onyebuagu (6-2, 305) comes from Warren Central in Indianapolis. Guard Panan Tense (6-4, 315) played in-state at Fenwick in Oak Park.
Junior Chris Nendick (5-11, 168) is the incumbent here, and he's had a relatively productive collegiate career. Nendick has converted a school-record 94 consecutive PATs, including 50-for-50 last season, and has 176 career points. He also kicked a school-record 52-yard field goal against Akron in the title game. For the season, Nendick was 9-for-13 on field goals, going 4-for-4 on kicks inside the 30-yard line. Senior Luke Biondi (5-11, 188) is the second kicker on the roster.
The other side of the ball also has a void in the middle of its line. Senior defensive end Ken West (6-1, 238) and sophomore Larry English (6-3, 236) are both seasoned on the outside, but the Huskies need replacements for first-team All-MAC tackle Quince Holman and Martin Wilson. English played well in his first season, collecting 57 tackles and 1.5 sacks, while West has been a steady presence for three seasons. "We have two quick ends who have the ability to rush the passer," Novak said. One replacement inside is junior Zack Holycross (6-7, 284), who had two sacks and 20 tackles off the bench last year. Holycross is a former walk-on who played his way to a scholarship, a common occurrence over the years in Novak's program. At nose tackle, junior Adam Schroeder (6-5, 273) and seniors Eric Pittman (6-2, 265) and Brad Benson (6-1, 260) add some experienced depth behind Holycross. Sophomore Craig Rusch (6-4, 252), however, appears to have the edge on the defensive tackle spot and will be backed up by sophomore Alex Krutsch (6-2, 246). On the outside, redshirt freshman Anthony Antonacci (6-1, 250) and junior Robert Oruche (6-4, 245) figure to be in the rotation. Two young in-state players coming onboard are Ed Jackson (6-4, 230), from Cahokia High, and Kris Cooke (6-2, 304), from Flossmoor High in Homewood.
Another area where a youth movement could take place is at linebacker, where several former defensive backs could move up to provide more speed for the unit. In the middle, sophomore Tim McCarthy (6-0, 226) finished as the second-leading tackler with 101 and received several postseason awards. McCarthy also forced two fumbles, recovered one and had a sack as a first-year starter. Senior Keenan Blalark (5-10, 228) should also contribute inside after making 95 stops and an interception at strong-side linebacker last year. Sophomore T.J. Griffin (6-0, 243) brings a little attitude inside and likes to hit. On the outside, sophomore Phil Brown (5-11, 225) has some starting experience, but he could miss the season with a knee injury. redshirt freshman David Bryant (5-10, 193) looks to be the starter on the weak side, with sophomore Josh Allen (5-11, 217) behind him. On the strong side, redshirt freshman Cory Hanson (6-1, 196) has impressed the coaching staff so far, and a few freshmen could back him up. Mike Lepper (6-2, 215) was considered a top-100 prospect in Illinois at Richards High and runs a reported 4.5 in the 40. He forced five fumbles and had 10 sacks as a senior. Another in-state freshman, John Tranchitella (6-2, 200), was an all-state selection at Driscoll High and was ranked the No. 28 prospect in the state. "They are the same types of player [as Hanson]," Novak said. "They are tough guys." redshirt freshman Zach Larsen (6-0, 212) is another young player Novak is high on.
The secondary appears to be in the best shape in terms of returning starters, with three seniors back. Senior identical twins Adriel (5-10, 176) and Alvah Hansbro (5-10, 170) are the incumbents at cornerback, with a combined 39 starts and 296 tackles between them in their careers. The contenders are sophomores Bradley Pruitt (6-1, 180) and Melvin Rice (5-10, 185). Pruitt saw time in the secondary, while Rice did most of his work on special teams. Both Hansbros started all 12 games last season, but this group could be a mix and match set this season. Senior Dustin Utschig (5-10, 189) started 11 games at free safety and led the team with 121 tackles and three interceptions. His leadership -- Utschig is one of three team captains -- will be even more important with first-team All-MAC strong safety Ray Smith gone. As heralded as Smith was, Novak has the highest regard for Utschig. "Dustin was our MVP last year," Novak said. Replacing Smith falls on the shoulders of junior Mark Reiter (6-1, 191). Reiter started one game and made 35 stops and one interception in '05. "He's played a lot of football for us," Novak said. Reiter's back up is expected to be redshirt freshman Spencer Williamson (6-2, 195), while junior Sal Ibarra (5-11, 192) and redshirt freshman Jeff Fontana (5-11, 184) add depth at free safety. Nearby Mount Carmel product James Jefferies (5-9, 165) has the potential to play as a freshman at cornerback. O'Fallon (Ill.) graduate Justin Stewart (6-1, 185) arrives from an all-state season that included 125 tackles. The other freshmen are Missouri product Mike Sobol (6-0, 190), from Pevely, and in-stater Alex Kube (6-1, 200), from Cary-Grove High.
Sophomore Andy Dittbenner (6-1, 192) ranked seventh in the MAC last season with his 38.6 yards-per-kick average, but there's room for improvement. Novak would like to see more consistency from Dittbenner in his second year. Untested junior Jason Baez (5-9, 181) would be the other option.
Things will look quite a bit different in the return game, with Harris and Powers gone along with veteran long snapper Jason Labus. Marcus Perez could become an important contributor returning both punts and kicks. Britt Davis is another option on punt returns along with Mark Reiter and Matt Simon. There are big shoes to fill, especially on kick returns -- Harris ranked 19th in the country with 27.2 yards per return, and the Huskies were the top return team (22.6 ypr) in the MAC and 23rd in the country. At long snapper, Eddie Adamski is also slated to take over those duties.
Toledo and NIU, or NIU and Toledo. No matter how you list them, the two teams remain at the top of the MAC West and will have a say in the league championship picture. The Huskies hope they are the ones playing in the MAC title game against this season, and that very well could be the case with Wolfe leading the way. NIU has won games over the years with a strong running game and good defense. That figures to be the recipe again this season, but a decent passing game will be needed to keep opponents off Wolfe's back. Nicholson appears to have more flash, and his cannon arm could really take pressure off the run, provided the young receivers can separate from defenders. The middle of both lines also needs to hold their own, or the trench battles could turn one-sided, and not in NIU's favor. The Huskies win total has dropped the last few years, but don't let that fool you. The non-league schedule has become a bear -- this year Ohio State and Iowa are on the docket -- and conference teams are fired up for NIU each week. Barring a few key injuries, there's no reason NIU shouldn't be right at the top of the MAC again this season. And Wolfe just might become a household name before the year is over.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2006 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).