Jerry Kill wants his program to be more like Southern California.
No, not the Trojans that are now serving a two-year bowl ban following an investigation into former USC star Reggie Bush receiving impermissible gifts. But the NIU coach has said repeatedly that he wants his program to have the same level of in-house competition that allowed the Trojans to form one of the best programs of the last decade.
Entering his third season with the Huskies, Kill thinks his program has the depth to force his players to bring their best in daily competitions at practice.
As practice officially got underway Thursday, the competition is even more intense at a few select positions.
This definitely will be the most talked about battle. Jerry Kill went into the spring expecting to be without last year’s starter Chandler Harnish, but the redshirt junior has bounced back quicker than expected from a knee injury.
Still, Kill maintains the starting spot is up for grabs, with redshirt junior DeMarcus Grady and junior college transfer Casey Weston also competing for the job.
Grady – who went 4-0 as a starter filling in for Harnish last season – was the starter this spring, took a majority of his snaps with the first team on Thursday and will push Harnish.
“I’m always a leader on the field,” Grady said. “I have to continue to be a leader off the field, and I just have to make plays. That’s what it comes down to, making plays.”
The Huskies must replace two first-team All-MAC selections. Scott Wedige is the heir apparent to Eddie Adamski at center, but former NIU guard Jason Onyebuago’s replacement is less clear.
Redshirt sophomore Logan Pegram practiced with the first team on Thursday, but converted defensive lineman Ed Jackson also has a shot at the job.
“We’ve had some guys that have waited their turn,” Kill said. “I’m sure they’ll step up and play well.”
Right tackle Adam Kiel, a redshirt junior, also may have to regain his starting position after suffering a foot injury last year. Keith Otis, also a redshirt junior, spent the spring with the first team.
The Huskies sound comfortable with their top four linebackers: senior Alex Kube on the strongside, Devon Butler in the middle and sophomore Tyrone Clark and Jordan Delegal competing on the weakside.
But Kill is counting on inexperienced youth to give the Huskies depth until Pat Schiller is able – if he’s able – to return from an ACL tear suffered during the spring.
Kube reports that true freshmen Cameron Stingily and Mike Hellams were impressive during summer workouts and added that redshirt sophomore Victor Jacques was “the most improved” of the unit during the spring.
Kill calls the kicking situation the “biggest question mark” for the Huskies heading into the season. Freshman Matt Sims will push junior Ryan Fillingim for the role.
“I don’t know,” Kill said. “We’ll find that out through camp.”