DeKALB – Luke Eakes ran receiving routes last year. The Northern Illinois tight end caught a few passes, too.
Eakes has run routes in the first six practices of the spring at Huskie Stadium. But so far, the number of routes has seen a significant uptick. So have the catches.
“We need to get a lot better. We’re working, the offense is getting our rhythm down,” Eakes said after Friday’s practice. “We’re finding our identity as a team.”
And NIU’s tight ends are finding their identities have changed a little bit compared to the 2011 season. Primary tight ends Jack Marks and converted offensive lineman Adam Kiel are gone, replaced by a slender, if more athletic group spearheaded by Eakes, Tim Semisch, DeVonte’ Majors and, when he returns in the fall from a torn ACL, Jason Schepler.
Their difference in body composition and athleticism brings a few fundamental changes to the position group as a whole. NIU’s offense will still ask the tight ends to block, but they’ll aim to be threats in the passing game, too.
NIU coach Dave Doeren said the plays might look similar, but they’ll have more a mobile feel to them from the tight end’s standpoint.
“We can get into some wide receiver alignments with the tight ends now and actually not just be a big lug out there,” Doeren said. “We can actually run and catch it.”
That’s just fine with junior quarterback Jordan Lynch.
“We’ve got some pretty athletic tight ends,” Lynch said. “Semisch is 6-foot-8 and can go up and get the ball, so why not use him?”
Doeren said Eakes and Semisch have stood out in the spring, while Majors continues to develop as NIU’s offense has about 50 percent in of what it wants to install this spring.
They’ll be the top three tight ends until the April 21 spring game, then compete with the Sycamore native Schepler, who missed all of 2011 with a torn ACL but was a third-team All-Mid-American Conference tight end in 2010. Schepler caught eight passes for 96 yards as a junior.
Eakes said his hands are the attribute he has improved the most with the increase in opportunities to catch passes from Lynch and backup Matt McIntosh. Eakes led NIU’s tight ends last season with six catches for 49 yards and a touchdown, numbers that would seem almost certain to increase with more targets.
“It lets you fill in some of the spots if a wide receiver is banged up,” Doeren said, “you can send a tight end out there and it gives you a few more options.”
Call Eakes a fan of the evolution of NIU’s tight end spot, especially if it gives the group a bigger chance to contribute.
“It really opens up the tight end [position] and it’ll open up the run game,” Eakes said.