DeKALB — Northern Illinois football coach Dave Doeren admits that last season, his team didn't really have any depth at linebacker.
"There were games we had no backups," Doeren said. "If somebody got hurt we were just flat not going to have three linebackers on the field."
This year, that depth at linebacker could easily turn one of the Huskies' 2011 weaknesses into a strength.
Pat Schiller and Jordan Delegal are gone, but Doeren's defense gains Devon Butler and Tyrone Clark, two linebackers who missed the 2011 campaign. Not to mention Michael Santacaterina, Jamaal Bass and Victor Jacques, who saw time last season, as well as redshirt freshman Boomer Mays, who Doeren said got better every day of spring practice.
Clark is a player who played in all 14 games two seasons ago and was NIU's defensive MVP while leading the team with 78 tackles.
But last season, the game was taken away from Clark. In January of 2011, the St. Louis native found out he would face a year-long suspension and wouldn't play in 2011.
"I had some personal things going on," Clark said. "It was best for the team that I handle my situation the way I did. We got it done. We got it handled and now we're just looking forward."
Doeren said there were things that took place before he took the NIU job that led to Clark sitting out.
"There's some things that happened prior to me getting here that were in place when I got hired, and that's just how it happened," Doeren said.
Throughout the 2011 season, NIU's coach saw Clark working on the scout team, where he was named the Huskies' Offensive Work Team Player of the Week five times. When NIU was getting ready to face a team with a running quarterback, it was Clark — a quarterback at Mehlville High School in Missouri, taking the snaps.
While Clark was forced to watch his teammates hoist the Mid-American Conference championship trophy from his house and completely miss out on his junior season, Doeren said his weak side linebacker couldn't have handled a tough situation any better.
"Just had a great attitude. Never had his lip out, didn't complain. Gained 12 pounds lifting weights," Doeren said. "Another guy that didn't redshirt so he used it as a year to improve his physical ability. I think he did a phenomenal job of handling a bad situation and coming out of it positive."
Now, Clark hasn't really thought about NIU's season opener against Iowa at Soldier Field Sept. 1. He's just ready to get into camp.
Clark also sees what the Huskies have coming back at linebacker and on defense as a whole, and he's happy to be part of it. Yet, nothing is going to come easy for Clark's group.
"It's truly exciting, you know, just to be back with the entire defense, and the potential of what's there, and the potential of what we could do with a lot of guys coming back and a couple guys added in there," Clark said. "It's exciting to see the potential but it's not going to happen without hard work. That's where we have to set the tone and lay that groundwork before we can even think about something major.
"We've got to put in that work first. It's exciting though, because I know we have a lot of potential, but we've just got to put that work in first."