Created:Friday, August 5, 2011 5:30 a.m.CDT

A welcomed return

Northern Illinois defensive tackle Ron Newcomb carries a football while practicing fumble recoveries during Thursday's practice at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb. (Rob Winner –

DeKALB – The pads were off, and they will be until Monday. There were more individual drills than scrimmages. Nobody won position battles, but nobody lost either.

Whatever. Ron Newcomb couldn’t care less.

“Best feeling I’ve had in about a year,” he said.

First-year coach Dave Doeren said the first day of Northern Illinois’ fall camp at Huskie Stadium focused on retention. Starting competitions at outside linebacker, tight end and defensive tackle could wait at least another day before heating up. The goal was making sure nothing was forgotten over the summer, a necessarily dull use of two-and-a-half hours.

Newcomb couldn’t remember the last time he was so excited.

After missing all of spring practice with an ankle injury, the fifth-year senior defensive tackle played football for the first time since December’s Humanitarian Bowl. He didn’t get much sleep Wednesday, he said. Anticipation kept him up most of the night.

There were some nerves too.

“I was very excited, but I knew it was going to be a grind. You prepare for the grind,” Newcomb said. “You know it’s not going to be easy, you know it’s going to be hard. You have to prepare for it that way. You can’t just go into camp saying, ‘Oh, I’m excited, it’s going to be real easy.’

“A lot of guys prepare for camp in different ways. I spent the week before camp resting my body up.”

If Newcomb stays healthy, he’ll give much-needed depth and experience to one of NIU’s thinnest positions. Nabal Jefferson and Anthony Wells received first-team reps Thursday. Newcomb said his goal is to show he deserves to start.

“Anytime you add a veteran player to the group, especially one that’s as big and quick as he is at times, that’s a huge deal,” Doeren said. “If your defensive tackles are productive, that’s a giant, giant deal for your defense.”

In the coming weeks, what Newcomb doesn’t do is as important as what he does. Defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen said Newcomb needs to pace himself, do only what he can, resisting the temptation of trying to make up for a lost spring.

“We’ve had the conversation,” Nielsen said. “You can only do what you can do. Work one day at a time.”

In the locker room before practice, defensive end Sean Progar could sense Newcomb’s nervousness. He said it was the look on his face, a look of not knowing quite what to expect.

Newcomb took “mental reps” all spring, visualizing what he would do in each play. He said his retention was even with teammates. But physical reps are different.

“He hadn’t done much lately, so he thought he might be a little out of shape,” Progar said. “But he was fine. He worked with the (defensive) line, he kept up with us the entire time. He did well in the drills, too. Not only did he keep up, but he looked good.”

“He didn’t make a mental mistake all day,” Nielsen said. “It was impressive.”

Nielsen said that’s a testament to Newcomb’s offseason preparation. He didn’t miss a position or team meeting, and he didn’t take a practice off. Now, after almost eight months away from the field, Newcomb hopes there are plenty more practices to come.

“Being healthy and being able to go full-go, it’s just a great feeling,” Newcomb said. “Coming back from the injury was real tough. I’m just ready to hook ‘em up and throw the pads on.”

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