DeKALB – Willie Clark caught Chandler Harnish’s pass and turned 25 yards up field. He had broken it for a touchdown. The only thing between him and the end zone was Northern Illinois’ defense, practicing against the scout team on the other half.
But Clark didn’t celebrate. He simply threw the football back to an assistant coach and headed for the sideline. The offense went on without him.
“That’s the good thing about our offense,” Clark said. “There are so many weapons, everybody gets some love.”
Some more than others.
NIU’s top receiver a season ago has caught two passes for 35 yards through two games, well off his pace of 42 catches for 602 yards last season. Six players have caught more, including running back Akeem Daniels. Six have caught touchdowns, but Clark isn’t one of them after having a team-high seven last fall.
Clark was injured much of camp, which offensive coordinator Matt Canada said helped contribute to Clark’s slow start. But the biggest reason is NIU’s offensive depth, which makes it difficult for any receiver to get the football several times each game.
“Our offense, I’ll guarantee you, they’re not calling plays for certain guys,” NIU coach Dave Doeren said. “They’re literally keeping guys fresh and keeping speed coming at you. That’s just how it works. There could be a game where a guy has eight catches coming up. You don’t know.
“I know coach Canada has put him in a lot of different packages to try to get him reps. It’s just, the ball hasn’t gone his way yet.”
Clark said Canada called him into his office last week to discuss other ways he could contribute to the offense. One new play is a jet sweep, where Clark goes in motion from his wideout position and gets Harnish’s handoff at the snap. NIU ran the play once for eight yards against Army.
In past seasons, Clark said, the slot receiver got the handoff on a jet sweep. Clark learned he would get the football on the play when NIU began preparing for Army. He hadn’t taken a handoff on a jet sweep since his Pop Warner days.
“It brings back good times,” Clark said, laughing. “They definitely threw that into the game plan. It’s fun and exciting. It brings a new aspect to our offense and gives the defense something else to prepare for.”
Canada doesn’t deny Clark’s importance. It’s a long season, he said, and there is plenty of time for the senior to boost his numbers.
But at the same time, the Huskies are averaging 45.5 points per game. Canada isn’t about to change anything for one player.
“It’s important that we score points,” Canada said. “I certainly like Willie a lot. But how important is it that Perez (Ashford) gets involved? Or Martel (Moore) gets involved? Or Jas (Hopkins), or Akeem (Daniels), or (Jamal) Womble, or A.J. (Anthony Johnson)? We’ve got a bunch of good players. It’s important that they all do their job when they get the chance.”
Both of Clark’s receptions came against Kansas. If he had his way, every game would be like Army, even if he only touched the football once.
“Whatever they want me to do, whatever play they design or whatever, I’m ready to do it,” Clark said.
“I’m in it for the team. It’s not about me. And it’s not hard, because when it comes down to it, all you want is the win.
“As an offense, as a defense, as a team, it doesn’t matter who gets all the shine as long as we get that win.”