Created: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 12:25 a.m. CDT

Rising expectations

Northern Illinois linebacker Michael Santacaterina (left) is coming off a season in which he had 28 tackles and an interception. (Rob Winner –

DeKALB – Michael Santacaterina made the most of an opportunity last season.

The circumstances weren’t ideal for the Northern Illinois linebacker – far from it. One linebacker out because of a yearlong suspension (Tyrone Clark), another recovering from a gunshot wound (Devon Butler), another suspended three games after running into a Toledo band member (Jamaal Bass).

It left a redshirt freshman linebacker from Geneva with the task of playing, and learning, on the job, while a then-maligned NIU defense couldn’t afford another loss in their personnel, much less the Mid-American Conference standings.

“We brought him into a tough situation with all the Tyrone, Devon and Bass stuff, all that stuff that happened,” NIU coach Dave Doeren said after Monday’s practice at Huskie Stadium. “He took advantage of what he could. I think a lot of guys did last year on defense.”

Santacaterina finished with 28 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble and helped NIU’s defense improve throughout the season with his tackling ability and heads-up play.

“It was kind of thrown at me in the summer. Then during the season we had some things happen,” Santacaterina said. “But I took it as an opportunity and when you have an opportunity, you’ve got to run with it.”

As a result, the Northern Illinois sophomore knows more will be expected of him in the fall.

At least, he hopes.

“I expect to have a huge role in the linebacking group. I’m expected to make plays, and that’s how I want it to be,” Santacaterina said. “Hopefully it stays that way.”

With Butler and Clark’s return and Bass’ legal status up in the air as he awaits the next step in his legal process in Lucas County, Ohio, for the Toledo band incident, Santacaterina’s role in 2012 won’t be defined until the fall.

In the meantime, Santacaterina will first try to get healthy – back spams have limited him over the past week – before he looks to increase his role on an NIU defense that expects to be one of the best in the MAC.

“If he can play healthy, he’s a smart player, he plays hard,” Doeren said. “He has a lot of passion.”

The next step for Santacaterina and NIU’s linebackers will come in the summer, when Doeren hopes they build some sort of familiarity with each other on the field. Although there are plenty of returners, the group doesn’t actually have much experience playing in games with each other as a unit. Butler and

Clark played alongside each other in 2010, and Santacaterina and Bass played separately and often subbed in for each other in 2011.

“Chemistry is a big part of any part of this many people on the field when it comes to whatever sport you’re playing. Who is going to communicate and know where they’re going to be and trust the guy and we’re not there yet,” Doeren said.

Santacaterina said the defense has spent the spring working on its communication and alignment, and was confident the linebackers will improve on what needs work.

“The chemistry, we haven’t really played with each other, with the same group out there. We’re young, so we all hang out when we’re not playing,” Santacaterina said. “It’s nice to be around those guys. We’ll be good. We’ll be all right.”

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