Replacing six starters on a defense that ranked 14th in the nation last season was a difficult task head coach Dave Doeren was fully aware of.
But two weeks ago, the number of vacancies ballooned to eight, when Doeren announced that linebacker Tyrone Clark and safety Tracy Wilson would not play this upcoming season.
"The way I'm looking at it, it just creates an opportunity for somebody else," Doeren said. "Anytime you lose a good player, it's a challenge."
Clark, who is sitting out this season due to a personal situation, is still enrolled at NIU and will still practice with the team. NIU's Linebacker of the Year and defensive MVP from last season will have a different role from the sideline this year.
"Obviously, Tyrone is out there leading and coaching and doing anything he can to help us and that's his role right now," Doeren said.
An early candidate to replace Clark could be redshirt senior Pat Schiller. After injuring his knee in spring practice last year, Schiller has worked with Devon Butler, Jordan Delegal and the rest of NIU's first-team defense in the early stages of spring practice so far.
In 2009, the Geneva High School graduate started 13 games while ranking third on the team with 82 tackles.
Huskie linebackers coach Tom Matukewicz called Schiller the "leader of [the linebackers] right now."
"He's a guy that last year didn't play a lot, but he's played a lot of football and right now he's the guy we're really leaning on," Matukewicz said.
Wilson, who left the team to pursue professional football opportunities, appeared in eight games during the Huskies' 11-3 run last season, but started only three games.
This year appeared to be an opportunity for redemption for Wilson, as some of his NIU teammates mentioned him as the team's most talented player on defense last season.
In a February interview, when Tommy Davis was asked if he was thrilled about lining up with Wilson in NIU's secondary once again, he replied with enthusiasm. In just a month Wilson would be off the team, but Davis also gave props to his other fellow safeties.
"We got a lot of talent in the secondary coming back," Davis said. "I'm excited to work with all of them."
Through three practices, Demetrius Stone has been holding down the third level of the Huskies' defense with Davis.
"He played a lot towards the end of the season because he had a knee injury earlier in the season," Davis said. "He's come on strong."
Davis stated that for now, the NIU coaches' plan is to use defensive back Jimmie Ward as a corner, in contrast to playing multiple positions in the secondary last season, including safety.
Davis offered an interesting analogy of Ward.
"Jimmie's a freak," Davis said. "I've seen that kid make some plays and you go, ‘How did that kid just do that?' Jimmie's a good player, he's got speed."