With just more than a week left during Northern Illinois’ spring practice period, defensive coordinator Jay Niemann has been able to get a sense of what the Huskies have on defense.
Niemann, who has had to work through several challenges this spring, discussed the past four weeks with Daily Chronicle sports reporter Ryan Wood on Thursday. Here is an edited transcript of their conversation:
You’ve had a lot of challenges this spring. What has been the biggest challenge for you so far?
Well first it’s just getting to know your players and understanding what they can do because outside of coach (Tom) Matukewicz, none of us had been here before to see and evaluate them. So you begin to get a feel for what they’re capable of and what they’re like as people, how to motivate them and coach them. Everybody’s hot buttons are a little bit different. So that’s kind of where it starts.
You know, the injury situation, you can look at it two ways. One, it’s detrimental because you don’t have your best people out there. But it’s positive from the standpoint that some other kids are getting the chance to play that wouldn’t otherwise be getting as many reps. But it does disrupt the continuity of what you’re trying to do.
Our offense has been a challenge to defend because of all the motioning and shifting and the tempo, you know, how quickly they get their plays off. Those kinds of things have all been challenging, but it’s been good. Because we’re not going to see any formations or shifts by the end of spring that we won’t see in the fall. We’ve kind of defended it all.
As you evaluate your defense, where are the strengths and weaknesses?
Well right now the biggest thing is consistency. We’re up and down. The first scrimmage was really good, really positive. The second and third scrimmages weren’t, but the practices in between the second and third scrimmages were really pretty good. So with a lot of people changing and coming in and out of the lineup, and somewhat a young group with unidentified leaders, you’re going to have some of those things happen. But we’re just trying to get them to play on an even keel and come out and give us the same thing every day.
What have you seen from the defensive line?
Well when we get our best four out there, I think we’re going to feel like we have one of the better units of four people. Not knowing what the rest of the conference has yet, because I haven’t coached in this league, I don’t know quite how to compare that just yet. But we certainly feel as a defense we run well, we pursue well, so our movement skills aren’t the question. We’ve got to be able to buckle down and defend the run game.
Linebacker was a position group that was pretty set before last week. How important is it to find a guy who can step into that middle linebacker role before spring is over?
It’s important to the extent that we can just identify who has the ability to play on Saturday afternoon and who’s ready for that from a physical, and a mental and a maturity standpoint. You know, we’re going to have three guys who can go out there and do the job when it’s all said and done. The main thing is they’re on the field getting repetition, getting opportunity, and that’s certainly been the case.
Secondary was a question mark coming into spring. How much have they progressed?
It’s been good, I’ve been pleased overall. You know, typical coach, you’re always looking for something to get better at. But there is athleticism and skill back there. I think we’re going to be able to line up and cover people, whether it’s man or zone, depending on the situation. We’ve got guys who can play good, tight coverage. Again, with our offense, they’re just being exposed to so many different formations and shifts and motions. It’s been good for them to understand what coverage concepts we want to be in against what formations. They’ve pretty much had the whole kitchen sink thrown at them.
With just more than one week left, other than consistency, what do you want to see the defensive improve during the rest of spring practice?
I want to see us defend downhill run game. I don’t want to see vertical seems in the run game. I want to see balls that get pushed to the perimeter because of how aggressive we are against the box, and for people to get off blocks and run to the ball. I think we’re going to be fine defending the pass and rushing the passer. But even as coach Doeren pointed out on the practice field at the end of practice today, to win consistently at a high level you’ve got to run the ball on offense and you’ve got to stop it on defense. That’s what we need to do.