Jeff Phelps had to pinch himself a couple of times during spring football. He wasn't dreaming. He really did have this much quality depth.
Northern Illinois' line is the deepest area on the defense and Phelps, the Huskies' defensive line coach, got to work with more bodies than he did during the 2009 regular season.
By the end of spring practice, you could easily say the defensive line goes a legitimate three-deep at every spot. NIU was so deep inside that Adam Coleman and John Hopkins both moved from defensive tackle to tight end and there was no falloff. On the ends, sophomores Sean Progar and Alan Baxter asserted themselves as bookends for at least the next two seasons. Both should make a case for an all-Mid-American Conference team in 2010.
This group should lead the way for one of the top defenses in the MAC. With the way NIU's coaches like to rotate on the defensive line, usually eight or nine guys, competition in the fall will be fierce to grab some playing time.
With that, let's hand out some awards for the spring.
MVP: Sean Progar
The difference between his redshirt season, Year 1 and the start of Year 2 are pretty impressive for Progar. He's been on a pretty dramatic upward trend since this past spring and that hasn't slowed yet. His technique has improved, especially with his hands, and he's made himself a more efficient rusher.
Most improved: Stephen O'Neal
With each practice it was harder to believe O'Neal played quarterback in high school. This guy? This 6-foot-4, 232-pound bull rusher of a defensive end? Yes, as hard as it is to believe, O'Neal did play under center at Rich East High School. This spring, he was a pretty consistent force in getting to the backfield, punctuated by two sacks and a pass breakup in the final spring practice.
Breakout star: Brian Lawson
His redshirt freshman season got cut short in October by hand and finger injuries suffered in practice and he could only make it back for the International Bowl. Lawson spent this spring reminding everyone why he was a starter in 2009, displaying a quick first step and better awareness in the run game.
Needs to improve: Nabal Jefferson
Jefferson was kind of lost in the shuffle this spring. He wasn't bad. He wasn't great. For someone who played as a true freshman, more should be expected of him, though. Jefferson needs to be more consistent in his pass rush and on stopping the run.
Post-spring depth chart: Starters: DE Sean Progar and Alan Baxter, DT D.J. Pirkle and Brian Lawson. DE backups: Darnell Bolding, Anthony Wells, Stephen O'Neal, Joe Windsor, Daniel Green. DT backups: Mike Krause, Ron Newcomb, Nabal Jefferson, Zach Anderson, Frank Boenzi (possibly).
Depth chart for season opener: Same, though it wouldn't be a surprise if Krause ends up starting and Boenzi is a huge wildcard if his academics are in order.
Quotable: “I feel like I could be dominant on the edge. I should be dominant on the edge. I just want to get better.” – Progar.