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

Youngsters making an impression

Northern Illinois defensive end Jason Meehan could play a major role the rest of the season for the Huskies. (Rob Winner –

DeKALB – Jason Meehan never had played defensive end. He was a lifelong linebacker, comfortable standing in a two-point stance where he could scope the entire field. The trenches didn’t belong to him.

But that’s where the freshman found himself when Northern Illinois opened this season against Army. The first time he crouched into a three-point stance, Meehan didn’t quite know what to expect.

The play ended with him tackling Black Knights running back Jared Hassin.

“That was probably the first time I could say, ‘Hey, this is me, this is my team,’ ” Meehan said. “I’m a part of this, and I’m going to help my brothers win these games.”

There never is a written script for how new players enter a college program. Some arrive on campus and immediately find the scout team. Others contribute immediately.

Before the season, NIU coach Dave Doeren switched Meehan from his natural middle linebacker position to the defensive line for that very reason.

“With our situation, health-wise on the D-line, we needed a guy who could get reps,” Doeren said. “We didn’t feel like Jason was going to play linebacker for a couple years, where he might play right away at defensive end. He’s a big guy, so his future is probably to get bigger.”

A 6-foot-2, 230-pound St. Louis native, Meehan used to be a huge middle linebacker in high school. Now, he’s a small, Division I defensive end. He said it’s too early to call him the future of NIU’s defense.

But he didn’t deny the possibility, either.

“If God wills it,” he said. “As long as I can continue to get better and better, and stay humble and keep accepting coaching from all the great coaches we have, I don’t see why I wouldn’t be. Just as long as all the hard work is still there and I stay coachable, definitely. I could help this program do a lot of things and help us go where we want to go, along with my teammates.”

Faustin starting early: Meehan doesn’t lack confidence, and he isn’t the only young player ready to help NIU return to Detroit for the Mid-American Conference championship game.

Cornerback Jhony Faustin had a smooth transition this summer after spending one season at Ellsworth Community College. The sophomore started his first game Saturday against Cal Poly. Not that he’s surprised.

“I know my potential,” Faustin said. “I’ve been working hard all summer camp. And I think we’ve got the best coaching staff in the country. They’ve taught me what to do.”

Faustin said he was comfortable playing Division I even before fall camp began. During summer seven-on-seven drills – before he even knew all the coverages – he realized he could keep pace with his teammates.

In one of the first sessions, he returned interceptions for touchdowns on consecutive plays.

Coaches aren’t allowed to watch summer seven-on-seven drills, but Doeren said he was aware of Faustin’s progress.

“The players would come in and talk about how good certain guys were doing, and you heard about Faustin all the time,” Doeren said. “I was hoping Jhony would [contribute immediately]. So you just had a feeling that once he learned the schemes and had a chance.”

Lewis a touchdown machine: No first-year player is more recognizable than receiver Tommylee Lewis, and it took just one game. Lewis, who won’t turn 18 until Oct. 24, is only 5-foot-8, 170 pounds – and looks smaller than that. But he is one of the Huskies' fastest players.

The first time Lewis touched the football on offense, he scored a touchdown. It was quickly brought back because of a penalty. The play was called in the second half Saturday, and the result was the same.

“I knew Tommylee would be good,” Doeren said, “I just didn’t – with all of our receivers – I didn’t plan on having to use him. But he just has too much stuff to him. You hate watching him when you know you have a chance to have him make plays like he did Saturday.

“He’s just a special athlete. He’s little, but he plays big because of how tough and competitive he is.

It’s impossible to predict how soon young players will catch on at the college level. But Doeren said Meehan, Faustin and Lewis have one thing in common, something that tends to be a good indicator.

“All three of them are from winning high school programs,” Doeren said. “All three of them played against very good competition. I think that’s what you see with those three guys.

“This is a good freshman class. There are a lot of good players in it.”

Will NIU football win the MAC this season?