Created:Monday, August 16, 2010 11:50 p.m.CDT
Updated:Thursday, August 26, 2010 12:12 p.m.CDT

Strength in numbers

Northern Illinois running back Jasmin Hopkins is hoping to make a major contribution to NIU's rushing attack this season. (Beck Diefenbach –

DeKALB – Northern Illinois opponents know the Huskies are going to run the ball. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to stop them.

The Huskies continued their run-heavy tradition by leading the Mid-American Conference with 195.2 rushing yards per game last year. NIU rushed for more than 200 yards in six of its seven wins.

And despite losing third team All-MAC rusher Me’co Brown, who withdrew from school in March for personal reasons, NIU thinks it again has the stable of backs to run all over a pass-happy conference.

Chad Spann, who had 1,038 rushing yards led the MAC with 19 rushing touchdowns last year, will be the focal point. But junior transfers Cameron Bell (Iowa State) and Jasmin Hopkins (Fort Scott Community College), along with senior Ricky Crider, will receive a fair share of carries.

“We’re really lucky,” NIU offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “We’ve got four kids that all bring something different to the table.”

Spann, a 5-foot-9, 198-pound senior, returns his mix of run-through-you and run-around-you styles.

But he will be complemented this season by Bell, a bulldozer at 6-foot-2, 242 pounds, and the shifty and speedy Hopkins, listed at 5-foot-9, 174 pounds. Hopkins has also shown a knack for getting tough, second-effort yards during two impressive scrimmage performances last week.

“Jasmin’s a guy that gets out there in the open field, he’s going to make you miss, break a tackle and take it all the way,” Spann said. “(Bell is) going to really tire a defense out. He’s hard to bring down.”

Crider, who NIU coach Jerry Kill said “doesn’t make mental errors,” gives the group depth and experience.

Limegrover said Bell and Hopkins made strides with increased reps during the spring with Spann sitting out due to a shoulder injury.

“Obviously Chad Spann is going to be a big part of what we do, but Jas is having a big camp,” Limegrover said. “Him and Cameron were here in the spring getting those reps, and they look like different kids out here now.”

With the new additions getting carries, Spann will take less hits on his shoulder. But the emergence of Bell and Hopkins has only made the No. 1 guy on the depth chart work harder.

“It’s a lot of pressure on me,” Spann said. “I have to keep working harder to stay in front of these guys. They’re doing everything they can to earn reps.”

They also challenge the NIU defense in practice.

“I tell some of the linebackers all the time, if we can tackle those four guys, I can tackle anyone in the country,” NIU senior linebacker Alex Kube said. “I firmly, truly believe that.”

Add in quarterbacks Chandler Harnish and DeMarcus Grady, who combined to rush for 1,186 yards and 10 touchdowns during the last two seasons, and the Huskies have plenty of options to keep opponents on their heels.

“They all know our history with the kind of running backs we had that everybody’s going to get their opportunity,” Limegrover said. “We’re not going to just play one. Everyone’s got to be ready.”

Will NIU football win the MAC this season?