DeKALB – With plenty of practices before Northern Illinois begins its football season Sept. 3 against Army, no depth chart can be totally accurate.
But there have been a month of practices. And there was a spring scrimmage Saturday. Here’s a positional breakdown as the Huskies conclude coach Dave Doeren’s first spring:
Chandler Harnish looked like you’d expect. He finished 18 of 25 for 180 yards and two passing touchdowns Saturday. He added a 13-yard rushing touchdown at the end of the first half. Harnish is experienced, talented and on pace to again be the Mid-American Conference’s best quarterback in 2011.
Jordan Lynch, on the other hand, didn’t erase any questions about his arm. It’s not that 14 of 22 for 148 yards and an interception is horrible. It’s just not good enough to have success as a MAC starter. Lynch knows he is a backup this fall. He played like one Saturday.
Finally, after much anticipation, the winner of NIU’s spring running back battle is ... Jasmin Hopkins. He wasn’t dominant Saturday – 10 carries for 46 yards and a touchdown – and hasn’t been this spring. But Doeren said he’s been the most consistent.
When the Huskies return to daily practices this fall, the running back battle won’t be a closed case. Akeem Daniels is probably NIU’s most explosive back. Jamal Womble has struggled but is physically gifted. And Leighton Settle was one of the most improved players from the spring’s first day to now. We likely will be talking running backs in August.
What happened Saturday was a confirmation of what has been widely expected all spring. NIU has one of the deepest, most talented group of receivers in recent memory. Perez Ashford, Nathan Palmer, Martel Moore and Da’Ron Brown all had at least five catches and 40 receiving yards. Moore and Brown caught touchdowns. And Willie Clark was a consistent target for Harnish on underneath routes. Opposing secondaries won’t be able to cover everyone during the season.
It was just one play, but Cameron Bell’s 18-yard reception – which had several yards after the catch – was a nice glimpse of the senior, first-time tight end’s potential. Bell has the talent, athleticism and physicality to play the position. All he needs is the experience. With starter Jason Schepler out next season with a torn ACL, there isn’t a position more wide open than tight end. Depending on how quickly Bell adapts, he could be the guy to fill it.
The Huskies’ offensive line had a couple pass-protection breakdowns, but it opened gaping holes in the running game. Part of that was because tit was playing a second-team defensive line that hasn’t spent much time together as a four-man unit this spring. Make no mistake, though, these guys are good. For all the talent at other positions, the offensive line’s ability to control the line of scrimmage will be the most important factor in success.
Nabal Jefferson is going to make a nice tandem with whomever starts alongside him this fall. The problem is, NIU still doesn’t know who that’s going to be. The good thing is it has plenty of options.
Anthony Wells – whom I think could be the starter once he adds another 10 pounds – is more explosive and athletic than most MAC defensive tackles. Frank Boenzi is a load in the middle at 310 pounds, even bigger than Jefferson’s 287. And Ron Newcomb should be in the mix when he is able to practice this fall.
Jordan Delegal and Pat Schiller are firmly positioned as NIU’s two outside linebackers. With Devon Butler missing the 2011 season, everyone knows middle linebacker is up for grabs. The first-team reps rotated between Mike Hellams, Cameron Stingley and Victor Jacques. In spring’s final practices, Jacques emerged as the favorite. But this position battle is just beginning and likely will be undecided well into fall camp.
Rashaan Melvin and Dominique Ware continue to get comfortable with the starter role. Both have the physical size to play well on the edges. Ware had pass interference called against him Saturday, but neither corner gave up the deep pass.
With Sean Evans out the second half of spring with a sprained ankle, Jimmie Ward rotated in at nickle cornerback. Over the past five weeks, Ward might be the most improved player on NIU’s defense. Standing 6-foot, Ward also has good size for the MAC.
If Demetrius Stone continues to develop, safety could turn into a positional strength this fall. Stone made the defense’s biggest highlight Saturday with an interception returned about 60 yards. Tommy Davis was flying around the field making plays, as he consistently has done this spring.
There’s a reason I didn’t write much about kickers this spring. The real position battles will begin when Tyler Wedel (punter) and Josh Gallington (place-kicker) get on campus this fall to challenge punter Ryan Neir and kickers Mathew Sims and Ryan Fillingim. Stay tuned.