DeKALB – Entering the 2016 season No. 4 on the depth chart, Northern Illinois quarterback Daniel Santacaterina didn't expect to see much playing time.
By the end of the year, he was making his first start for the Huskies on the road.
Now the redshirt sophomore enters the 2017 spring season in a competition with redshirt junior Ryan Graham for the starting spot as the team finished their fourth practice on a rainy Saturday afternoon at Huskie Stadium.
"It definitely feels different (this spring)," Santacaterina said. "I feel more responsibility and I feel when you have more responsibility, you're held to a higher standard and it makes you raise your game. Ryan is a great friend of mine and it's really fun to compete with him. ... I'm getting a lot more reps so I've been learning the offense by performing the offense – being in there and executing it, that's how you learn best."
For the second consecutive season, the Huskies suffered the injury bug at quarterback in 2016. Drew Hare and Anthony Maddie both suffered season-ending injuries and Graham had a concussion in the first half of the Huskies' game at Eastern Michigan. Santacaterina, the 6-foot-1, 206-pounder from Geneva, played the rest of the 31-24 overtime comeback win over the Eagles and got his first collegiate start at Kent State – a 31-21 victory for the Huskies.
Against the Flashes, he went 13 for 23 with 258 yards and an interception and also ran for a 3-yard touchdown. Against Eastern Michigan, he was 5 for 15 with 105 yards and a 74-yard touchdown pass to Aregeros Turner and rushed for 91 yards, but also had the luxury of running back Jordan Huff rushing for 173 yards and three touchdowns.
"When you come into the season where I did, just being prepared with as reps as you can, then you slowly realize it could become a possibility," Santacaterina said about starting at No. 4 on the depth chart.
Being thrust into the starting spot as a freshman because of injuries is something that Graham is also familiar with. In 2015, injuries to Hare and Maddie meant that Graham started four games as a redshirt freshman – with wins over Buffalo and Western Michigan and losses to Ohio and Boise State.
In the game against Toledo – in which Hare suffered his season-ending Achilles injury – Graham helped lead a comeback, going 9 for 12 with 132 yards and a touchdown off the bench in a 32-27 road win.
Graham, a 6-foot-1, 210-pounder from Wheaton, once again took over as the starter when Hare went down in the second game of the 2016 season, but lost his spot to Maddie following a lackluster performance in a loss to Western Illinois. When Maddie got injured late against Bowling Green, Graham started against Toledo and Eastern Michigan.
"(The last two seasons) were definitely up and down, but I think I gained a lot of experience," Graham said. "Learning from Drew and Maddie was definitely a big help for me. ... I'm working on being more consistent, pocket presence and good feet and leading – leading the team the best I can."
In the game against the Rockets in 2016, Graham went 24 for 43 with 227 yards, three touchdowns and an interception in a 31-24 loss at Guaranteed Rate Park.
"(Graham and Santacaterina) were both recruited here because they can do and execute our system and you've seen them both do that at different times through the past two years," Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said. "They both run well and they both throw well, it's just a matter of reps and time and getting experience."
There was a glimmer of hope for Maddie and the Huskies – he was originally listed on the spring roster – but they found out on Thursday that his waiver for a potential sixth year was declined by the NCAA.
"They offered an explanation back to the waiver and the waiver is 70 pages long," Carey said. "(It) came down to a bunch of legal jargon and what they thought."
Northern Illinois quarterbacks coach Craig Harmon said he wants Graham and Santacaterina to take better command of the offense this spring and said they both did well in the games they played in the past.
Graham and Santacaterina have been splitting duties with the first-string offense so far this spring, Carey said. Redshirt freshman Marcus Childers was getting most of the third-string reps during team drills on Saturday. True freshman Rodney Hall, who graduated early to participate in the spring season, is a highly touted quarterback out of Cass Tech in Detroit. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Hall participated in individual drills and briefly in 7-on-7 but didn't get any reps during team drills on Saturday.
Carey said he's still unsure if Hall will redshirt this coming season.
During the 2014 season, Hare, Maddie and Matt McIntosh were competing for the starting spot – with them splitting duties early in the season before Hare won the job and helped lead the Huskies to a victory over Bowling Green in the MAC Championship.
"You'd always love to have one guy," Carey said. "Every team would, but we'll see when we get there."