DeKALB – They could’ve been lethargic. The weather was bad. And with a 7:15 a.m. practice – an awful time for college students to do anything, much less football drills – the players could’ve been half asleep.
But the intensity of Northern Illinois’ first spring football practice Tuesday suggested otherwise.
Dave Doeren didn’t have to nudge his players onto the field at Huskie Stadium for his first practice as a head coach. They took care of that themselves, lining up 15 minutes before practice was supposed to begin. The energy never decreased after that.
“The thing I loved was the effort and intensity,” Doeren said. “They sprinted out the door. They couldn’t wait to get out on the field.
“Guys want to get better. We just have to clean up all of the details that you kind of expect to be sloppy on Day 1.”
Senior center Scott Wedige said the motivation to start NIU’s spring season simply comes from loving the game. But starting practice at that time, and in that weather – cold rain, a constant wind causing frigid temperatures – takes extra motivation. For that, Wedige said, he and his teammates didn’t have to look far.
While last season ended positively, with a dominant Humanitarian Bowl win against Fresno State, the memory of what happened in the Mid-American Conference Championship Game lingered. The Huskies were close to winning the MAC title, until they weren’t, losing in the most unlikely way.
Wedige said the disappointment of what could have been still is fresh.
“It doesn’t sit well with us,” Wedige said. “As a competitor, that just grinds your gears. It just kills you. But it fuels you. We want it because we were so close last year. We’ve got that carrot dangling in front of us this year. Now we know what it takes to hopefully go out to Detroit and win it, how much harder we have to work.”
Talk of Detroit and postseason play is premature, of course, especially in March. But what happened against Miami in December has been a consistent conversation topic amongst players over the past months. Wedige said he and NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish talked about it before practice.
DeMarcus Grady, back from his short stint as NIU’s starting point guard, said it was a constant disappointment even the bowl victory couldn’t completely erase.
“Every day in the offseason, you think about those things,” Grady said. “You think about coming up just short, and how it happened. It gives you something to play for. You don’t go in with this cockiness to you. Say if we would’ve won, we may have gotten a little lenient, maybe not work as hard. But now, you can only expect the best out of us.”
When it comes to the things a coach can’t teach – the effort, intensity and constant energy – Doeren said he saw the best of his players Tuesday. Sure there were technical things that needed improvement. Doeren specifically mentioned too many dropped passes, mostly a byproduct of the weather. Those things likely will take care of themselves, once the rust knocks off. There are plenty of practices for that.
But the little things are in place, and Doeren said it’s no secret where they come from.
“That definitely scarred them pretty deep,” Doeren said of the MAC title game loss. “You see their resiliency in the bowl game and how tough these kids are. But it left them hungry, there’s no doubt.”