Jasmin Hopkins spent the past month locked into Northern Illinois’ closest, most intense position battle.
Making plays wins position battles. Reps win position battles. Neither happens by standing on the sideline.
So when the senior running back saw Akeem Daniels come in for him during the first series of Saturday’s spring scrimmage – as the offense approached the end zone, no less – disappointment was the natural reaction expected. With Hopkins experiencing offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s no-huddle offense for the first time in a game situation, he was more relieved.
“I didn’t really realize it until today, honestly,” Hopkins said about the speed and required endurance. “We kept running, running, the whole drive was run. So I was happy Akeem was coming in at one point. The no-huddle is the big change. It was a really big change.”
If Saturday’s scrimmage is any indication, it’s a change the Huskies have adjusted to nicely.
Hopkins soon came back onto the field, finishing the opening drive with a one-yard touchdown run. It was the first of five for NIU’s Red team, which beat the White 35-6.
The Huskies’ offense has been in catch-up mode the past four-plus weeks, trying to learn Canada and first-year head coach Dave Doeren’s schemes and terminology. On Saturday, they were dominant.
NIU scored touchdowns in every conceivable way. Three came inside the five yard line. One came on a 57-yard pass from Chandler Harnish to Martel Moore. And Harnish added another on a 13-yard run in the first half’s final seconds.
Harnish’s touchdown run was the first time NIU’s offense has scored in the two-minute drill this spring.
“That’s a huge drill for us,” Doeren said. “There’s going to be a lot of games decided in the last two minutes. And we’ve got to be totally confident and comfortable that we can get what we need on both sides of the football.”
Despite the offense’s success, none of the Huskies were gloating.
Harnish said the offense needed to execute better, pointing to a second-quarter stretch when the Huskies’ second-team defense made three consecutive stops. One of those series ended in a sack, which led to a fumble recovery and the White’s first of two field goals.
“I think it was kind of up and down,” Harnish said. “We did a lot of good things, but at the same time we got stopped a few times. We’re looking to score 50, 60 points a game. If we want to do that we have to be very consistent, assignment oriented and do our job.”
Of course, by this point, everyone has learned anything on the topic of football has to come with a prefix.
It is only a game.
It is just football.
There have been constant reminders this spring. Another one came before the Red team began its first series, when injured linebacker Devon Butler stood on the field with his teammates.
Butler’s presence had been absent since he was the victim of an off-campus shooting April 5. Going through the endless questions and probes, each player said one of the things they missed most was the unique call Butler makes, one that sounds half bird, half dinosaur.
So to see Butler at midfield, flapping his arms and making his half bird, half dinosaur call with the rest of the defense, seemed to bring a brief glimpse of normalcy.
“It’s definitely great to be around him, and breaking down (the huddle) on him,” linebacker Jordan Delegal said. “Even when we were in the back, I said, ‘Man, you already know what you’ve got to do.’ He was like, ‘Yeah I know, I’ve got to do the bird call.’ So it was definitely a big-time motivator going into the spring game.”
Coaches and players have marveled at how far Butler has come in just a few short weeks. In a much lesser, just-football sense, the same can be thought about NIU’s offense.
Only five weeks ago, this was a group that struggled to simply line up. The new schemes and terminology made football as mentally taxing as it can be. But Harnish said the offense has installed roughly 70 to 75 percent of the offense it will use this fall, an amount even he’s impressed with.
Hopkins said he can tell a big difference between Saturday and the Huskies’ first practice under Doeren.
“We got better each and every practice,” Hopkins said. “We had a whole bunch of mistakes at the beginning. Coach Canada told us we’ve got to play fast, but we can’t play in a hurry. We just basically took that in, just trying to get the system in and learn it.
“In the long run, each and every practice we got better.”