With spring practices set to start a week from Tuesday, we'll be taking a look at the Huskies, position group by position group, entering spring football. Today: NIU's defensive line.
Youth and inexperience defined the beginning of last season for the defensive line. It was tough to project what that group would accomplish and how it would hold up as the season would progress. Season-ending injuries to Kyle Jenkins, Mike Krause and Mike Kritikos, all before the season even started, forced the Huskies to give a lot of snaps to young players.
The young players responded, with NIU's first-year defensive linemen combining for: 91 tackles (38 solo), 19.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and a pass break-up. Those numbers include Brian Lawson missing six games because of a hand/thumb injury.
Sean Progar finished ninth in the MAC in sacks with six and warranted consideration for a few Freshman All-American teams. Progar was consistent, getting at least a half-sack in six games and managed two fumble recoveries. His development, along with that of Alan Baxter, will be something to watch this spring.
With that, the NIU D-Line looks like this right now (projections are mine, not those of the coaches)...
Projected DE starters: Sean Progar (Rs. Soph.), Alan Baxter (Soph.),
Backups: Darnell Bolding (Rs. Senior), Anthony Wells (Rs Fr.), Stephen O'Neal (Rs. Fr.), Daniel Green (Rs. Fr.)
Projected DT starters: D.J. Pirkle (Senior), Brian Lawson (Rs. Soph.)
Backups: Nabal Jefferson (Soph.), Ron Newcomb (Rs. Jr.), Mike Krause (Rs. Sr.), Zach Anderson (Rs. Fr.), Kyle Jenkins (Rs. Jr.), John Hopkins (Rs. Jr.), Rodderick Bell (Rs. Fr.)
Fall wildcards: DT Frank Boenzi, DE Joe Windsor
What to watch for: There are certainly a few things to watch this spring. Mike Krause's potential comeback from a heart ailment that sidelined him for the entire 2009 season is one. The development of redshirts Anthony Wells, Stephen O'Neal and Zach Anderson is another.
But who takes over as the leader of the defensive line and, more important, fills in for the production lost by the departures of Jake Coffman and Brandon Bice is the biggest. Do you remember those numbers I rattled off from the first-year defensive linemen at the top of this post? Coffman and Bice combined for 13.5 sacks, 21 tackles for loss and Bice forced four fumbles by himself.
Progar and Baxter did a solid job as backups, and Progar especially as a starter once Coffman moved inside midway through the season, but now it's on them to produce.
The coaches were high on Anthony Wells and Stephen O'Neal's progress while redshirting. This is their first opportunity for 2010 to make a lasting impression for the fall.
2009 highlights: The Huskies held Purdue running back Ralph Bolden, then the nation's leading rusher, to 64 yards rushing in winning at Purdue... NIU set a school record in holding Miami (Ohio) to minus-11 yards rushing... Coffman registered a fumble recovery, a tackle for loss and a memorable 79-yard interception return for a touchdown in a win against Western Michigan... With Coffman forced to move inside after Lawson's injury, Pirkle responded in that first game at Miami (Ohio) with a sack, tackle for loss, pass break-up and a blocked kick... NIU finished tied for first in the MAC with Temple with 34 sacks.
2009 lowlights: South Florida running back Mike Ford ran to the left, right and up the middle for 207 yards in the International Bowl... A week after holding Purdue down in the rushing game, the Huskies gave up 207 rushing yards in a home loss to Idaho... On the first play from scrimmage in the second half at Central Michigan, Bryan Schroeder ran 80 yards for a touchdown to essentially put the game out of reach at 31-10.
2010: HuskieWire prediction: The Huskies should have enough depth at end and definitely have enough at tackle. If Geneva's Frank Boenzi can qualify for this year, that's a huge bonus for NIU. But the Huskies should have enough quality players to rotate the 8-9 guys they usually like to do. Don't be surprised if the 6-foot-3, 232-pound Wells comes through with a big spring.
There's a lot to replace in Coffman and Bice, but NIU isn't putting a brand-new player into either spot. Progar and Baxter should continue their development after an offseason in the weight room and the defensive line sets up as a real strength for the Huskies entering spring practices.