DeKALB — Last season, opposing running backs carved up the Northern Illinois defense during the first month.
Huskies coach Dave Doeren thought his defensive line was getting too far upfield, which in turn opened up the running lanes. It was one reason Army, Kansas, Wisconsin, Cal Poly and Central Michigan ran for a combined 1,295 yards during NIU’s rough start to 2011.
Then, things started to click for NIU. From a win over Kent State on Oct. 8, where the Huskies allowed just 1 rushing yard, until the GoDaddy.com Bowl victory over Arkansas State in January, NIU gave up a total of 1,048 rushing yards over its last nine contests.
“We’ve got to understand, there are times where you get up the field and there’s other times where you squeeze blocks and restrict run lanes and play at the depth of the football,” Doeren said. “As the season went on, we got a lot better at that. So, we just want to kind of pick up the season where we left off as far as defending the run up front.”
The defensive line started clogging up the running lanes, and also got more comfortable in Doeren’s system. Under former coach Jerry Kill and former defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, the defensive ends played wide, and were further away from the offensive tackles.
In the current system, the ends are tighter and have contact with the tackles earlier, something Doeren called a big change.
“It was a lot different. It wasn’t that they weren’t trying to do it, it just took them awhile to get used to what we were doing,” Doeren said. “The scheme was different than they played in the past. Even though it was still a 4-3, we coached it differently than the previous staff.”
The Huskies rotated 10 players on the defensive line a year ago, and Doeren plans on doing the same thing this season. Ron Newcomb and his 49 tackles and 4.5 sacks are gone from last year’s team, but defensive ends Sean Progar (52 tackles and 5.5 sacks in 2011) and Alan Baxter (48 tackles, 5.5 sacks), as well as tackle Nabal Jefferson (46 tackles, 5 tackles for loss), will be a key part of the line.
Doeren mentioned players like defensive ends Joe Windsor, George Rainey and Jason Meehan have a chance to see more playing time than they did in 2011. Newcomers like freshman Mario Jones and junior college transfer Ken Bishop should see action as well, according to Doeren.
With fall camp just over a week old, Progar said the defensive line is comfortable with the system.
“So far in camp, we’ve been doing well. Guys know their assignments, guys are executing their assignments,” he said. “And I think that’s the biggest thing, just knowing your assignments, being confident that you can execute it. That’s what we’ve been doing so far.”
In terms of getting to the quarterback, the Huskies were fine in that department last year, finishing second in the Mid-American Conference with 28 sacks.
One luxury the Huskies have is being able to get to the quarterback by rushing only four defenders.
“We don’t feel like we have to blitz in order to get to the quarterback, which really helps us in a variety of coverages,” defensive coordinator Jay Niemann said. “But, we’ve got a combination of different things that we do with four- and five- and six-man pressures.”