DeKALB – Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill got a long and hard look at South Florida's defense at the International Bowl one month ago.
To him, that solidified how much he wanted his NIU defense to look like the Bulls. Wednesday, he felt that the Huskies took a step in that direction with the announcement of 26 players to this year's recruiting class.
This year's class includes six defensive backs and four linebackers, all with one thing in common: speed.
"When we played South Florida, it was evident what they brought to the table at linebacker," Kill said. "So you kind of get a way of looking at what you need. We feel we addressed that. We feel like we've got some guys that can really run and that was important."
The cherry on top on the defensive side of the ball for the Huskies was the Tuesday night commitment of Crete-Monee linebacker Greg Barksdale. Barksdale had visited NIU in October but decided to commit to Wyoming.
That changed and defensive line coach Jeff Phelps, who was praised often on Wednesday by Kill for picking up where recruiting coordinator P.J. Fleck left off when Fleck left for Rutgers.
"There are a lot of surprises with recruiting. Probably the biggest one was Greg Barksdale. Coach Phelps got a call late," Kill said. "He was committed to Wyoming and was going in that direction. I think he felt that, at the moment of truth, when you know you've got to go that far away from home, I think he decided that wasn't the direction he wanted to go in."
Grouped in with Romeoville middle linebacker Cameron Stingily (4.65 40-yard dash time), Bolingbrook linebacker Mike Hellams and Miramar, Fla., linebacker Jamaal Bass (4.51 timed 40-yard dash) and NIU's defense in the second level appears to have a bright future.
"Hellams, we knew he was a player," Kill said. "Coach [Tracy] Claeys, he's not a guy that just jumps. He said, 'Hey, him and Stingily are no-brainers.' They're both just physically strong, fast."
The goal again for this class in Kill's view was to get faster, stronger and more athletic players.
Kill says the coaching staff accomplished that on both sides of the ball and cited Morgan Park's Da'Ron Brown, who will play wide receiver after leading the Mustangs as a quarterback, as an example.
"Da'Ron Brown, in my opinion, the best skill athlete in the city," Kill said. "I don't think anybody would disagree with you. I thought we'd lose him to Northwestern. I know [Northwestern coach] Pat Fitzgerald was in on him. I thought Illinois might come back late because they lost so many people."
One of the biggest things Kill feels this class gives his team is depth, which should make for an interesting fall camp once the recruiting class is on campus.
"To be honest with you, we got in that room the other day and I talked to our players, I told them we have open competition," Kill said. "This is what I've been waiting for since I got here. I feel like we're bringing in some kids. We brought in a class last year and we got some kids that have been here before.
"We needed to build some depth. The only way to get better is you got to be deep and know how to compete."