DeKALB – Devon Butler said it best. Throughout these five weeks of spring football practices, Northern Illinois' offense and defense will have highs and lows, momentum shifts back and forth.
Butler was also right when he said Saturday was clearly the defense's day.
For the first time this spring, NIU football players put on their pads. The defense scrimmaged the offense for about 20 minutes of full contact. The offense didn’t get into the end zone once.
“The defense has their day, offense has their day. Just today we came out ready, and we played as a unit,” Butler said. “This was our day.”
Their success allowed Butler and his fellow defenders to cut out of practice while the offense stayed for up-downs. It also left NIU coach Dave Doeren with a mixed review.
He was frustrated with the offense, which is facing the natural, early spring struggle of getting its timing down. But, as a defensive guy at heart, he was pleased with a unit that entered the week with several questions needing answered.
When asked for his thoughts on the Huskies’ first full-contact session, Doeren saw both sides at once.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” he said. “You get fired up about the 'D', and then you’re wishing that the offense was playing better. I’m excited to see that (the defense) came to work today, and, you know, they were down a couple guys too. They just kept playing.”
Then Doeren switched his thoughts to the offense.
“We just need a cleaner practice,” he said.
Back to defense.
“I was excited about how we tackled there at the end though. The guys did a pretty decent job.”
“But flipping it over, we’ve got to do a better job on the other side of the ball, and we will be.”
Such is the dilemma of a first-time head coach.
NIU quarterback Chandler Harnish knows why his offense struggled. While the plays and schemes haven’t changed much, he said, 75-80 percent of the offense has new terminology. Learning it all will take time.
But with the experience NIU’s offense has, Harnish said there is no reason to be going less than full speed by the middle of Week 2.
"I don't want to make excuses, but, you know, it's early in spring," Harnish said. "It's cold outside, and guys want to use their physical condition as an excuse. There's no excuses. We have a lot to do, and we have a lot of seniors on offense. So we have no excuses this year."
Butler isn’t worried about the offense rounding into shape. He’s seen it before, just last season, from the same group of players.
“I think timing is a big part of it,” Butler said. “We’re still having trouble with quarterback-center exchange, and stuff like that. But I just think, once they get in the hang of it, with our offense, once they get something down pat, I feel like they’re almost unstoppable. Once they get a few practices under their belt, watch film, I think they’re going to be a problem.”
Until then, Butler is going to enjoy having the upper hand.
“We got to go in and rub it in their face a little bit, make them mad,” he said with a smile.