DeKALB – Teammates like to tease, because any quarterback is an easy target, and Northern Illinois senior Chandler Harnish is sometimes easier than most.
They joke that he’s a pretty boy. They stop dancing to Kanye West and Young Jeezy during practice breaks if Harnish starts, pointing and staring because it’s all so darn funny. And if he tries to make a move around a defender in the open field, the laughs never stop.
“The running backs and wide receivers make fun of me all the time,” Harnish said.
This week, the wisecracks continued. Harnish had a career-high 229 rushing yards in Saturday’s stomping of Western Michigan. Despite runs of 29, 40, 45 and 51 yards, he did not have a touchdown.
“Two words: Clark Kent,” right tackle Keith Otis said, chuckling.
“Superman,” receiver Nathan Palmer nodded.
But every snicker came with an underlying dose of respect. What Harnish did Saturday – pass and run for more than 200 yards apiece – had only been done by 10 Football Bowl Subdivision players.
Among their names: Michigan’s Denard Robinson and former stars Vince Young (Texas), Antwaan Randle El (Indiana) and Brad Smith (Missouri).
“It’s surreal. It really is,” Harnish said. “I’ve read a couple articles and seen Vince Young did it, Antwaan Randle El did it, Denard Robinson did it, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know if I belong there, but ...’ It feels good.”
“It was fun to watch him do those things,” Palmer said.
Those in the program notice what Harnish is doing this season. The senior quarterback is headed for rarefied air, projected for more than 2,600 passing yards, 1,100 rushing and 32 touchdowns, and that’s before factoring in a bowl game and potential Mid-American Conference championship contest.
Only four players in FBS history have hit those marks in a single season. The most recent was last year’s Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. The only other MAC player was former Central Michigan quarterback Dan LeFevour, who did it in 2007. The Chippewas won the MAC that season.
But Harnish’s respect from coaches and teammates has as much to do with his opinions of his accomplishments as it does the raw numbers. Not once after a game this season has Harnish said he’s been pleased with himself – whether he’s thrown for five touchdowns or rushed for three. That didn’t change this week, even after what coach Dave Doeren labeled a “career game.”
“I’m not real happy with my performance,” Harnish said bluntly. “I don’t think I threw the ball very well. That’s something I take pride in, being efficient in the pass game. I missed probably five or six easy throws. So I think I can throw better, I really do.
“The run game is always there. The O-line did a great job. To be honest, I didn’t have to make that many plays. The holes were so wide open, anyone could see that. I just ran the ball and tried to get as far as I could.”
Harnish was intent to dwell on his 14 of 27 (52 percent) completion rate and one interception. Doeren saw more.
Those running lanes were massive, but it requires talent to take advantage of them.
“I think he accelerates very quickly,” Doeren said. “I think he’s faster than probably you think. But 40(-yard)-time-wise, I couldn’t tell you. But for a 220-pound guy, he accelerates and actually reads the holes very well. His feet run on contact, he can jump over an arm tackle, and he’s very strong so you can’t just reach out and get him.
“Obviously when you run like he did in the third quarter against a speedy defense – which I think [the Broncos] are – he’s got some speedy to him.”
Maybe the jokes come because the nostalgia has worn off. Teammates have seen Harnish do everything the past four seasons – multiple times.
“Some of his moves are on accident,” Palmer said, smiling.
But they know how important those moves are to an offense that has scored less than 40 points only once in seven games this season. When Harnish takes off, Palmer and Otis said, they’ve learned it’s time for them to help.
“It’s transferred over to where we’re not watching now, anymore,” Palmer said. “We’re looking for that next guy to block because we might spring him.”
“You have to guard away from becoming a spectator,” Otis said. “Once he breaks away for 15, 20 yards downfield, you’re like, ‘Go! Let’s go! Let’s see what he’s going to do!’ "
He’s running into college football history, and the jokes are close on his heels.