DETROIT – They’re new, but they’re not. They’re experienced, but they’re not. They can tackle. Maybe. I think.
Welcome to the enigma that is Northern Illinois’ defensive personnel in July.
The Huskies were picked to finish second in this year’s Mid-American Conference preseason media poll, more on the strength of their offense, the one that’s talking about executing 90 plays a game at an almost Oregon-like tempo. And although preseason polls are as worthless as Jay Cutler’s wedding registry, NIU’s defense was enough of an unknown before the poll came out to at least raise a few questions.
NIU is asking some questions itself of a defense that returns the least number of starters in the conference, though that number is a little misleading.
“I think we’ll be a good defense,” junior defensive end Sean Progar said at Tuesday’s MAC media day. “Our goal is still to be the best defense in the MAC. That goal is not going to change, it’s just, will we do it and how quickly will we get there?”
First-year coach Dave Doeren added: “Obviously we only tackled three or four times (in the spring). Can I say exactly I know who is a great tackler yet? No, I can’t. But we saw a lot of improvement in a lot of areas.”
That’s where NIU’s defense stands. There’s potential. There’s belief. But it’s belief without much evidence at this point, and a pesky, triple-option offense in Army awaits Sept. 3.
If that potential is realized, book your ticket for Detroit and another MAC title game. If it’s not, that road looks a little bumpy.
The Huskies have done what they can to flatten any learning curve on defense before the season starts. Progar said the defense met in the offseason to walk through schemes on the field after working out so the younger players can have it down pat.
Although the Huskies still employ a 4-3 defense, some of the complexities of defensive coordinator Jay Niemann’s system are different, most notably in the amount of terminology they’ll use.
“They bring that Big Ten terminology,” Progar said. “We didn’t have that much terminology. It was just teaching you how to do this and how to do that, not actual words for each thing. We picked it up pretty fast in the spring, and I think we’ll get better.”
Something Doeren wants to see early when camp starts next week is how much his defense retained from the spring. That, along with whatever personnel is healthy and performing, will determine how often and how complex the Huskies will employ blitz and stunt packages and if they can cause the same kind of havoc they did last season as the top scoring defense in the MAC.
Doeren said one of the things he liked about the defense is that the previous coaching staff under Jerry Kill rotated players at a heavy clip, so it won’t be like there are eight brand-new faces on the field, which means no excuses once it’s gameday.
“I don’t want to be a defense that gives up plays and beats themselves,” Doeren said. “We’re going to have a good offense if we stay healthy, and we need to be opportunistic and get them the ball, as many opportunities as we can.”
The speed of NIU’s no-huddle offense should benefit the defense, if it can handle everything and learn from those experiences in practice. Progar thinks it will.
“Because our offense runs the no-huddle now, our guys are scrambling in practice,” Progar said. “So when it comes to the game and teams aren’t running the no-huddle, it’ll slow down a little bit for them and it’ll be a little bit easier for them to run the plays and understand the defense.”
At least, that’s the hope for the Huskies.
• John Sahly is the sports editor of the Daily Chronicle. Follow him on Twitter @JSahly or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.