DeKALB – During 7 on 7 drills on Thursday morning, Northern Illinois quarterback Ryan Graham looked to hit wide receiver D.J. Brown up the middle.
Northern Illinois senior safety Brandon Mayes had other ideas.
Mayes jumped the passing lane for the interception and returned it to the end zone as the Huskies defense mobbed him in celebration. Mayes is just one member of a Northern Illinois secondary that has plenty of game experience as the Huskies near the midway point of the spring season.
"You always get a thrill," Mayes said of the interception in practice. "You never know when it could be the last time on this field. This game has given a lot to me. Especially being a senior, I want to take every moment in and enjoy it all, because it only comes around once. ... The safeties, we know what we're doing. We've been playing together for a long time. When we first came in, we were young guys playing early, so we got experience as a group."
Mayes returns after playing in all 12 games last season, finishing third on the team with 71 tackles and added two interceptions. He's played in all 40 games during his three seasons with the Huskies, while the other safety, senior Mycial Allen, has also played in all 40 games since being a redshirt freshman and is coming off a season in which he had 61 tackles and two interceptions.
Northern Illinois defensive coordinator Kevin Kane said that he has six safeties that he could put into the game and feel good about it, including Mayes, Allen and redshirt sophomores Trayshon Foster (26 tackles in 11 games in 2016) and Trequan Smith (25 tackles in 10 games).
"We feel like we're the quarterbacks of the defense," Mayes said of the safeties. "We have to bark out calls and be able to make sure people are lined up in the right place. We're the last line of defense."
The Huskies have plenty of depth at cornerback, too.
Senior Shawun Lurry, who had a breakout season with nine interceptions as a sophomore in 2015, finished last year with three picks and 38 tackles in 10 games. Lurry, who has played in 37 games since his freshman year, joins fellow seniors Mayomi Olootu (31 games) and Albert Smalls (29 games) as defensive backs who have garnered playing time since their first season with the Huskies.
"All of us – me, Mayomi and Albert – we've been playing since our freshman year, so we're the seniors in there," said Lurry. "It wasn't a frustrating year (individually in 2016). I only gave up one touchdown and only one big pass, but other than that, I feel like I had a decent season. To be honest, I don't even think about the interceptions. I just want to go out there and win."
Lurry has been out of contact drills after breaking his left wrist during the winter. He said he hopes to return to contact drills in a few weeks. Smalls, who missed all but one game with a shoulder injury last season, has also been out of contact drills during the spring.
The injuries that plagued the cornerbacks last season resulted in Daniel Isom playing in 10 games as a true freshman, recording 41 tackles and six pass breakups. Isom was out of practice on Thursday and Lurry said he might be sidelined for a while. Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey was not available for comment following practice.
"When I was a freshman, I played limited snaps – maybe 25 snaps a game," said Olootu, who played in all 14 games as a true freshman in 2014. "Isom, he started a couple games for us because we had so many guys injured. He has a lot more experience under his belt. When he's back, he's going to be ready to go. He's been in the fire."
Redshirt junior Jalen Embry, a transfer from Iowa Central, is now eligible for the Huskies and has been getting plenty of reps during team drills. Lurry praised his footwork and ball skills and said that during film sessions, Embry is diligently taking notes.
Kane, who is in his second year as defensive coordinator, said that there was a lot of change in terminology last season and that now the players are confident in Year 2 – saying they're playing faster than he can remember them doing.
With a deep stable of cornerbacks to choose from, Olootu said the competition to get playing time will only make each of them better.
"It's real simple with our coach – if he trusts you, you're going to play," Olootu said. "We have all types of packages. All the players in the secondary, we have to force them to play us – make plays in practice that they have to play you. That's what we're all trying to do and that's what makes a great secondary."