Created:Monday, August 9, 2010 11:33 p.m.CDT
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Proving ground

By JEREMY WERNER - jwerner@daily-chronicle.com
Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish has won the starting quarterback job each of the past two seasons. (Beck Diefenbach - bdiefenbach@daily-chronicle.com)

DeKALB – Chandler Harnish has won the Northern Illinois starting quarterback job twice before. But the junior admits the task may be tougher this season – he’s battling junior DeMarcus Grady and junior college transfer Casey Weston for the job – after he missed most of the spring because of a knee injury.

“The competition’s more fierce than it’s ever been,” Harnish said. “We all work well together, and we’re all really good friends, but on the field we all want to prove our game. We want to make plays and take advantage of the reps when we get ’em.”

Last winter, NIU coach Jerry Kill didn’t even think Harnish would be a possible option to start the Sept. 2 opener against Iowa State, so he brought in Weston – a prolific passer at Northwest Mississippi Junior College – to compete with Grady and redshirt freshmen Jordan Lynch and A.J. Hill.

But Harnish bounced back quickly from the knee injury and did not have to undergo surgery, like originally feared.

Still, Kill didn’t just hand Harnish – named to the All-Mid-American Conference Preseason Team by Blue Ribbon Forecast – the starting job. In fact, the two-year Huskies signal caller has been practicing with the second team since training camp began last Thursday.

“DeMarcus deserves the first reps,” Harnish said. “He was here for winter conditioning and all spring ball, and he did a great job and he’s doing a great job now. I’m perfectly fine with taking (second-team) reps, and it is motivating on the other side. I want to be that guy taking the first reps, but I don’t want to think into it too much, just keep working and trying to get better.”

Kill has said he wants “durability and stability” at the quarterback position after Harnish missed three games during both the 2008 and 2009 seasons.

“Chandler’s trying to get timing and rhythm back,” Kill said. “It’s kind of early to get too high or too low on somebody. We’ve got two weeks of this grind. It’ll all settle in and out.”

Along with kicker, the quarterback position remains one of the largest question marks for a Huskies team that has high expectations – NIU was predicted to win the MAC West Division by the MAC media contingent – and returns most of the starters from the MAC’s top defense, three offensive linemen, its top wide receiver (Landon Cox) and its top rusher (Chad Spann).

Harnish said he’s a little bit rusty with the “little things: catching a snap, taking a proper drop, making the right reads, playing at game-time intensity.”

But the two-year starter thinks he can again be the guy calling plays in the huddle and is happy he’s healthy enough to be in the hunt.

“I just got to prove to coaches that I’m dependable and can make the plays, and play consistently,” Harnish said. “I think that’s one of the things that I’ve struggled over the last couple years is consistently making plays and playing like Dan LeFevour or Nate Davis from Ball State or Tim Hiller from Western Michigan. Play like those guys and you could have a great team.”

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