Northern Illinois Football Outlook - Part I

Matt Simon Photo Courtesy NIU Athletics

Since his arrival at Northern Illinois in December 2007, new Huskie head coach Jerry Kill has instilled a philosophy based on one overriding principle: hard work.

"I believe in hard work and the harder you work, the better your chances of success are," Kill said at his introductory press conference. "Life is what you get out of it and we are going to work hard."

Since that day, he and his staff have challenged their Huskie players to bring that philosophy to everything they do - from the classroom, to the weight room, to the field and even in the community.

For Kill, the hard work equals success equation is not a theory, it's a fact. He has found success at every stop of his coaching career, most recently at Southern Illinois where he led the Salukis to five straight appearances in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs, including a 12-2 mark and a semifinal berth in 2007.

While the Huskie players have not been strangers to the concept of hard work, Kill's passion, energy and winning record have focused their attention on exerting maximum effort in everything they do.

For many NIU players, much of that hard work has been accomplished while rehabilitating from injuries suffered last season or surgeries performed during the off-season. More than 20 players sat out 2008 spring drills. As a result, Kill will not see a complete Huskie team on the field until August.

"So many of our players did not go through spring ball, so it is hard for me to evaluate the whole team as we enter two-a-days," Kill said. "My major concern going into this season, period, is what the health of our football team is going to be on August first. If we are healthy, and if the ones who missed spring can learn quickly, then I think we have a chance to have a good football team."

While the 2007 Huskies finished a disappointing 2-10, a closer look at the record indicates the team was not far from a winning mark as Northern Illinois was 0-5 in games decided by seven points or less.

Now, with 20 players who started last year added to the former starters returning from injuries and the youngsters who gained valuable experience last season and in the spring, Northern Illinois will feature one of the most experienced and potentially deepest teams in the Mid-American Conference. They will certainly be one of the oldest as NIU has 21 seniors on the 2008 roster.

Kill likes Northern Illinois' mixture of experience and youth.

"We have a group of guys in the senior class that have enjoyed a lot of success, that know where to go, and a big group that hasn't ever been there," Kill said. "The seniors have to stay healthy and show a strong work ethic, which they have done, to get these guys going in the right direction. They have to help that happen or we won't win."

OFFENSE

The Huskie offensive line was the most stable, and one of the healthiest, units on the team last year. Of the seven NIU players who started all 12 games last year, four played on the offensive line, and three of those - Jon Brost, Eddie Adamski and Jason Onyebuagu - return in 2008.

Right tackle Brost, the only senior, was Northern Illinois' most consistent linemen a year ago and earned third team All-MAC recognition while playing every offensive down during the season. Although only a junior, Adamski brings two years of starting experience at center and is the leader of the group, while Onyebuagu holds down the right guard spot and serves as Adamski's primary back-up.

On the left side, junior Kevin Skatrud returns after starting eight games a year ago at guard. Much of the spring was spent solidifying the left side of the line with redshirt freshman Trevor Olson emerging as the leading candidate to fill the left tackle spot vacated by 12-game starter Chris Acevedo.

"We still have a lot more work to do [on the offensive line]," Kill said. "Adamski, Onyebuagu and Brost have all played and played well. We have to get our left side caught up with the right while building depth, and they all have to get a lot stronger."

In terms of depth, junior Tim Mayerbock and senior Dan Keller are the only other Huskie offensive linemen who have logged significant playing time. A trio of redshirt freshmen - tackles Joe Pawlak and Adam Kiel and center Scott Wedige - have played their way onto the two-deep along with sophomore guard Panan Tense.

Junior center Eddie Adamski returns to anchor the offensive line.

Once again the "big boys" will be opening holes for a group of talented running backs, led by returning 1,000-yard rusher Justin Anderson, who posted the ninth-straight thousand-yard season by a Huskie running back in 2007. In his first year as a starter, Anderson rushed for 1,245 yards on 274 carries to account for 76 percent of NIU's rushing total, while also catching 45 passes for 263 yards and three TDs. He ranked second on the squad in receptions and was a second team all-league back as a sophomore, despite carrying the ball only five times in the first game of the season and only six times in the 2007 finale.

Anderson was pressed into full-time duty only after Montell Clanton went down (for the second straight season) with a knee injury. Clanton returns for his senior season and is listed with Anderson atop the preseason depth chart at tailback, with sophomores Chad Spann and David Bryant also in the mix for carries and playing time. Bryant finished the 2007 campaign as NIU's only healthy back; he tallied his first career 100-yard game with 110 yards on 28 carries in the Huskies' win over Kent State.

"If we are healthy we have some depth in this group," Kill said of the tailback spot.

The running back position brings potentially the biggest change to the Huskie offense as Northern Illinois will field a true fullback under Kill. With no fullbacks on the roster he inherited, Kill and his staff pulled players from other positions during the spring, then signed freshman Victor Jacques out of Miami (Fla.) in April. Along with Jacques, Anthony Antonacci, Kyle Skarb, Connor Flahive and Pat McAvoy will vie for playing time in the backfield.

One of the great uncertainties for Northern Illinois entering August is at quarterback, particularly in regard to the health of senior Dan Nicholson. After playing nearly all of his junior season with a sore right (throwing) shoulder that required surgery in January, Nicholson was not able to participate in spring practices.

While Nicholson, who ranks among Northern Illinois' career passing leaders in nearly every category, could not throw this spring, Kill said the Chicago native still made an impact.

"Dan did a great job of teaching the younger quarterbacks and was very unselfish [this spring]," Kill said. "I think he did a great job of learning without actually playing and it may make him a better player. We need him to come through. We are looking forward to him being 100 percent."

Nicholson's absence this spring opened the door for 2007 redshirts Chandler Harnish and DeMarcus Grady and junior back-up Ryan Morris to get plenty of practice repetitions.

"Chandler Harnish is very athletic with a strong arm and is picking up the offense pretty well, but has to become more accurate with his throwing. Ryan Morris is very knowledgeable of the game and works very, very hard; I think he understands his role. DeMarcus Grady got off to a slow start [this spring], but he improved as much as anybody over the last week of practice," Kill said in assessing the rest of his quarterbacks.

The Huskie quarterbacks will be throwing to a talented group of receivers headed by seniors Britt Davis and Matt Simon, who each underwent shoulder surgery in January. Davis, the Huskies' school record holder for catches by a freshman and by a sophomore, was limited by injuries his junior season. Simon stepped in with a career-best year as he made 52 catches for 969 yards and five scores in 2007. His yardage total was the sixth-highest in school history and the most by a junior. The Minnesota native was also the Huskies' "big play" specialist with catches of 92, 59 (twice), 50 and 46 yards on the season.

Fellow senior Greg Turner joins Davis and Simon atop the NIU depth chart at wide receiver after catching a career-high 21 passes last year. Sophomores Landon Cox and Tyler Clasey, redshirt freshman Nathan Palmer and seniors Marcus Perez and Evans Adonis could all contribute at a position Kill calls one of the deepest on the team.

A year ago, tight end was one of the positions hardest hit by injuries as five different players made starts in NIU's two-tight end set, and nearly every one of those players ended up on the injury list during the season. After leading all Northern Illinois tight ends in catches a year ago with 18, junior Reed Cunningham is atop the two-deep going into August with seniors David Koronkiewicz and Brandon Beal, and sophomore Bryan Beckner expected to vie for playing time. Beckner started seven games a year ago, while Koronkiewicz played just two games before undergoing elbow surgery.

With key players out for the spring and a handful of freshmen still to be added come August, Kill said it is hard to tell exactly what kind of offense the Huskies will run in 2008.

"A lot of our offense will depend on who our quarterback is," he said. "We will be in multiple formations where one snap might be two-back, I-formation and the next play four-wide. We'll try to look complicated but not be complicated. We will try to create as many mismatches as we can."

Coming Wednesday: Part II - A Preview of the Defense and Special Teams

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