DeKALB – Frank Boenzi believes he has something to prove.
So far, so good.
Ask him about his goals, and the Northern Illinois redshirt freshman will tell you he wants to be on the field as much as possible, but it depends on how hard he works.
The redshirt freshman from Geneva entered last year's camp at 320 pounds. During camp, that number rose to 334.
"At one point, I was real big," the now-310 pound defensive tackle said after Saturday's spring game at Huskie Stadium.
He had a powerful bull rush, just what NIU's coaches wanted him to utilize, but not much else. The college game was different, too, as it is for so many high school stars used to dominating on pure, physical talent.
"Coming in, the speed of the game was different. It was a reality check for me," Boenzi said. "It made me focus on getting stronger in the weight room and working on my technique."
Ask him about his weight now, and he'll tell you new coach Dave Doeren and his staff want him tipping between 290 and 295 pounds on the scales. At the three-technique in defensive coordinator Jay Niemann's system, that's his ideal playing weight to utilize what he's learned.
And Boenzi has learned plenty on campus.
Ask him about his grades, those same questions that dogged him through a tiring recruiting process.
"First semester, I got a 3.0 (GPA)," he'll tell you with a proud smile. "So that's good."
And this semester, after dealing with a coaching change and tasting first-team reps for the first time on the collegiate level?
"I'm passing all of my classes this second semester," Boenzi said. "I mean, I don't know how they're going to even out, but right now, they're all good."
Ask him how he progressed this spring, and how he got a look at the first-team level, and he'll tell you practice No. 1 was "rusty, real rusty." He'll tell you he is an unfinished product after 15 practices, but he's improving at using his hands.
"I'd say my pass rush got better," he said. "Last year, I had the speed, the power, that's all. I had the bull rush, that's all. I had no finesse."
NIU's defense talks about having a chip on its shoulder. It ate up weak teams last season and did more than hold its own against good offenses and in hostile environments. But a good number of those players are either graduated (D.J. Pirkle, Jake Coffman, Chris Smith, Patrick George, Alex Kube, etc.) or sidelined (Devon Butler and Tyrone Clark).
Someone has to fill the void on the interior defensive line. Anthony Wells appears to have taken that opportunity and sprinted with it, evidenced again Saturday with his fumble recovery and constant penetration into the backfield. Wells needs someone to join him, though.
"Last year, we had something to prove," safety Tommy Davis said. "This year, we still have something to prove. You know, you did it one year. Now, can you do it again?"
Boenzi seems ready to answer that call, and to prove that NIU was right to give him a chance.
If you doubt it, just ask him.
• John Sahly is the sports editor of the Daily Chronicle. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org