Heading into the final weekend before Northern Illinois’ 2011 spring football game, offensive coordinator Matt Canada finds himself in a good place.
He’s sitting on a hotbed of talent, seemingly at every position. The Huskies are as experienced as it gets, too. The combination has helped NIU’s coaching staff implement much of its new schemes and terminology.
Canada spoke with Daily Chronicle sports reporter Ryan Wood after Thursday morning’s practice. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation:
How long did it take for the offense to start feeling comfortable this spring? I’d say the feeling out process was more like a week. That first Saturday practice we worked with the tempo and everything. That second Tuesday practice, I think we started rolling then. I’ve been real pleased with the way we’ve played in the scrimmages and things after that.
How much were the timing issues in that first week just a matter of the natural timing being off early in the spring? Very much of it, and that’s part of the process. We obviously changed the tempo of the offense from what has been done, and also we changed the terminology.
We’re running very similar plays, there’s not a lot of things different there. But when you do all those things together, there’s going to be some things that take time.
Offense is 11 guys working the same direction, and one guy screws up, everything else is out of sync. That’s the thing that takes a little bit longer to get going. I’m very, very pleased with where we are. We’ll continue to install and get things in a little at a time. We’ve got a long way to go with that. But you put some new things in, you’re going to be a little sloppy and then hopefully by the end of the week you’ve got it all cleaned up. So we’re on pace with installing the system right now.
The offense seemed to get its handle on things overnight. It struggled the first week, then had it the second. Were you surprised at how quickly it was able to catch on? No, not really. I think you have to set the bar where you expect it to be. I think probably in hindsight, looking back, that first Saturday when we scrimmaged was expected to be a little bit rough. At the time, when you’re going through it, that’s not how it feels. So, I think we have a great group of kids. We’ve got a lot of seniors. We have kids that love ball. And that’s the great thing about this place, is we have great kids who love football and like playing. So they want to be good at it, they want to play, and they want to take advantage when they see the opportunities ahead of them.
When we talk about Chandler Harnish, he’s someone who has the entire package, physical skill, the mental game, the intangibles. What is the best thing he gives your offense?
All of those things. He’s a fifth-year senior quarterback. That’s how you win championships in any league. Senior quarterbacks win championships. That’s the bar, that’s what he’s striving to do, what we’re striving to do. So he’s a leader and he’s talented. He can run the ball, throw the ball, get us in the right play, and he continues to learn and improve with all those things. I think that’s probably a good thing, and it keeps you fresh when you have to change. So, I’m sure, new systems are something you have to grow and have some growing pains with. But the flip side of that is it keeps you learning, and it keeps you going, and he’s a guy who likes ball.
Coach Dave Doeren has said several times running back has been perhaps the most competitive position battle this spring. What have you seen out of those guys? I’ve seen some guys who really like to run the football. Jas (Hopkins) came in here and had been talked about, and he showed why people were excited about him. We moved Akeem (Daniels) to running back, and boy he’s been a very, very good player with the explosion and some of the things he can do. Leighton Settle has been a very good addition. I think he, through the process, has just gotten better and better and better.
And then obviously (Jamal) Womble has been solid. He’s got some talent coming into this system. He started strong and had a little minor injury there, and he’s come back and been good. So you’ve got four guys who are very, very good players right now. They all bring something a little bit different to the table, and that’s fun and that’s exciting.
The receivers are talented, experienced, maybe more so than any other position on the team. How pleased have you been with them this spring? We’ve got a lot of talent out there. Obviously that’s the part of the offense that’s fun. You’ve got a bunch of talent on the edge, you’ve got good backs you talked about, you’ve got a quarterback you talked about, and you’ve got a bunch of linemen who can block. So I think, hopefully, we’re going to put ourselves in a position where the defense has to decide who they want to stop. And if you want to stop the wideouts, we can run it. If you want to stop the run game, we can throw it.
When you’ve got all those pieces, it’s pretty fun to be the guy calling the plays, because you ought to be able to find something that works. So we’re very talented on the edge. We’ve got some experience. We’ve got some fast guys, some good players out there.
You mentioned those linemen. With all the changes you’ve thrown at the offense, how much has it helped to have five returning starters? You win up front, period. It doesn’t matter how good you are on the edge, if you can’t run the ball they’re going to cover you. It doesn’t matter how good your backs are, if you can’t block for them they’re going to stop you. So you win up front. We’ve got experience up front at the line, and the tight ends, too. I’ve been very pleased. Obviously Jason Schepler is a great player, but Jack Marks, too. So we’ve got some guys up front who can play.
When you’re going into spring, you obviously go into it with expectations. What has been the biggest surprise for you so far? I don’t know if there has been a ‘biggest surprise.’ I think the happiest part is probably the quality of kids that are in this program, and the competitive nature of this place. And for me, that’s very similar to the way it was when I left (Canada was an NIU assistant from 1998-2003). I don’t think that’s a surprise, but that’s something that doesn’t happen everywhere. We’ve got good kids who like to play, are eager to learn and are working at it. When you have that, and you have talent too, you’ve got a pretty good combination.