Five years ago, Northern Illinois rode record setting quarterback Jordan Lynch all the way to Miami's Orange Bowl. But replacing the 2013 Heisman finalist has proven to be a challenge in recent years due to injuries: four season ending injuries to quarterbacks decimated the depth chart the last two years. Last season, fourth string quarterback Daniel Santacanterina (6'1” 205 lbs.) was pretty much all that was left by the season finale against Kent State.
The sole upside to injury problems is that younger players get experience. Junior Ryan Graham (6'1” 212 lbs.) started eight games the last two seasons, both ending prematurely as two of those season ending injuries. Last season, Graham completed 56% of his passes for 680 yards and eight touchdowns with six interceptions. Graham also rushed for 187 yards, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. Santacaterina completed 18 of 38 passes in his three games for 361 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions. Graham looks like the leader going into the season, but I suspect that Santacaterina may push him for playing time. Or maybe it'll be redshirt freshman Marcus Childers (6'0” 229 lbs), who might be too electric running the ball to keep off the field.
At running back, Jordan Huff split carries with now-departed Joel Bouagon to form a pretty solid tandem. Huff (5'11” 224 lbs.) returns for his senior season after rushing for 712 yards and five touchdowns in 2016. His 6.3 yards per carry average combined with just nine yards lost all season give you an idea of his consistency and dependability. After Huff, Northern Illinois will likely turn to either Virginia transfer Tre Harbison (5'10” 221 lbs.) or Indiana transfer Tommy Mister (6'0” 203 lbs.) to share the load this season.
It's going to be tough for Northern Illinois to replace Kenny Golladay, who set the NIU career receiving record in just two seasons before being drafted by the Detroit Lions in the third round this spring. Senior Christian Blake (6'1” 181 lbs.) is the leading returning receiver, catching 34 passes for 457 yards and two touchdowns last season. Neither Blake nor senior tight end Shane Wimann (6'4” 248 lbs.) are particularly consistent receivers (combining for a 41% success rate when targeted, according to Bill Connelly's advance stats), but it is worth noting that six of Wimann's 24 catches were for touchdowns. Keep an eye on redshirt freshman Andrew Parchment (6'2” 176 lbs.), who might get a chance to fill the void this season.
Considering the Huskies' concerns at quarterback and receiver, it's likely that NIU will rely on the ground game. First team all-MAC right tackle Max Scharping (6'6” 312 lbs.) will switch sides to replace departing second team all-MAC left tackle Levon Myers. With two other returning starters in sophomore left guard Jordan Steckler (6'4” 311 lbs.) and junior center Luke Shively (6'2” 286 lbs.), the Huskies will have a youth movement on the offensive line.
Seven starters return from last season's 98th-ranked defense, with the turnover coming in the front seven. Northern Illinois had been fairly stout on defense, but the rush defense has regressed four straight seasons, going from 146 yards allowed on the ground per game in 2012 to 175 in 2015 and 201 last season. Up front, the Huskies return senior defensive tackle William Lee (6'2” 301 lbs.) and junior defensive end Josh Corcoran (6'3” 250 lbs.), who led the Huskies with three sacks and four tackles for loss. At linebacker, only senior Bobby Jones (6'0” 220 lbs.) returns. Jones missed the last four games of the season, finishing fifth on the team with 59 tackles. That pace might have led the team if he'd have stayed on the field.
The entire two-deep of the secondary returns this season, led by senior cornerback Shawun Lurry (5'8” 178 lbs.). Lurry earned third-team all-American honors as a sophomore, leading the nation with nine interceptions. Missing three games last year, he still earned second-team all-MAC honors with 38 tackles, three interceptions and a team-leading 11 pass break-ups. Sophomore Daniel Isom (5'10” 173 lbs.) was impressive as a true freshman with 41 tackles in six starts at the other cornerback spot. Senior safeties Brandon Mayes (5'11” 186 lbs.) and Mycial Allen (511” 198 lbs) are the leading returning tacklers from last season with 71 and 61 respectively.
Phil Steele puts Northern Illinois on his preseason “Most Improved List” for 2017, with the expectation that the defense will rebound with a solid secondary and their bad luck at quarterback will turn around. While not the BCS busting program of a few years ago, Northern Illinois isn't a team to ignore either. Ohio State nearly found that out the hard way two years ago when the Buckeyes had to score late at the Horseshoe to win.
What happens when Northern Illinois plays the Huskers?
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YUUUUGE upset. Shawun Lurry gets a Pick-6 from Tanner Lee, and it’s all downhill from there.
Northern Illinois certainly makes it interesting, but the Huskers gut out a win at home.
The young Huskies are still a year away, and the Huskers are too much for these pups. It’s a Big Red Blowout.