DeKALB – Before the 2013 football season, Northern Illinois tailback Akeem Daniels seemed poised to be NIU's starter after finishing 2012 on a strong note.
That changed, however, as Daniels ended up missing the season because of a foot injury he suffered in the 2012 Mid-American Conference Championship Game.
Enter Cameron Stingily, who worked his way up the team's depth chart last August and running for 1,119 yards and nine touchdowns.
Heading into 2014, the roles have changed, with Stingily suffering an undisclosed injury early in camp. NIU coach Rod Carey said Stingily will miss at least the first four games of the season.
Re-enter Akeem Daniels.
The senior, who used his redshirt last year, is fully healthy. In 14 games (five starts) during the 2012 season, Daniels ran for 447 yards and nine touchdowns, averaging 6.6 yards a carry.
In the regular-season finale against Eastern Michigan, Daniels ran for 112 yards and four scores on only 12 carries, then followed that up with a career-high 128 yards in the MAC Championship win.
"I feel like I'm a lot better than that, mentally and physically," Daniels said. "I prepare myself very well in the weight room and the film room. I'm right where I expected to be."
Behind Daniels, there's more talent. Sophomores Joel Bouagnon and Draco Smith saw time as true freshmen last year. Junior Keith Harris Jr. averaged 6.8 yards a carry during the first five games last season before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. He missed the spring but is back in the fold. Redshirt freshman Jordan Huff is a talented, speedy back who could see some time.
Bouagnon has surpassed everything NIU running backs coach Kelton Copeland has asked of him, the second-year assistant coach said. He added that Smith is the most improved back from last year.
"We knew [Bouagnon] was special," Copeland said. "We knew he had talent, but the way he has come on this camp has been just amazing to me. He's everything you want in a tailback. He's big, he's strong, he's fast, he's smooth. He's able to read keys and he's physical in the blocking game. And he's improved tremendously catching the ball."
Bouagnon said he's showing an improved confidence that comes from added reps in game and practice situations. His practice reps have gone up since Stingily went out.
"Confidence, like knowing your plays, knowing the reads, everything. Once you learn everything, you're comfortable with the offense," Bouagnon said. "You can focus on really making your reads, making your cuts. That's all you're worried about instead of being worried about getting the play right or whatever."
It wasn't long ago that NIU was known for its running backs. The Stingily injury is a big blow, but the Huskies might have the depth to survive it.
"We have a talented room," Daniels said. "If one person goes down, God forbid, whoever else may go down in the future, we will always have somebody else to step up and not lose a beat."