While referred to as the secondary, NIU's defensive backs are definitely the primary question going into the http://www.niuhuskies.com/sports/m-footbl/niu-m-footbl-body.html" target="_blank">football team's http://www.niuhuskies.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/033111aaa.html" target="_blank">spring game this Saturday.
The Huskies ranked fifth in the MAC against the pass in 2010, giving up 208 yards a game. Secondary numbers from last season mean little to first-year head coach Dave Doeren, though, since three quarters of the unit have moved on from NIU.
Starting cornerbacks Chris Smith, who led the secondary with three interceptions, and Patrick George used their last year of athletic eligibility in 2010. At safety, the Huskies lost starter Mike Sobol to graduation, while highly touted, but often injured, safety Tracy Wilson decided to pursue pro football.
Redshirt junior Tommy Davis is the only returning starter from the Huskies' 11-3 season. The strong safety will be relied on to lead an inexperienced crop of defensive backs.
"It means a lot to lose those guys, they were some anchors in the secondary," Davis said. "They had a lot of experience. The good thing about it is the young guys here got a chance to watch those guys play and the seniors were able to pass down some wisdom."
Davis has been lining up at safety next to junior Demetrius Stone for the bulk of spring practices. A Miami, Fla. native, Stone has quietly been one of the more consistent members of the defense this March and April.
On the edges, the Huskies will most likely be looking to corners Rashaan Melvin and Dominique Ware. Melvin hauled in two interceptions and gained valuable experience in 2010 from then-head coach Jerry Kill, who excelled at building depth on the defensive side.
Ware, however, didn't play last year, and will have to learn on the fly in 2011. Doeren would like to see more competition at cornerback, but the former defensive coordinator has generally liked what he's seen from Ware and Melvin.
"There's not enough out there, but the ones out there are fighting," Doeren said. "We got some of the mentally toughest kids I've been around at the corner position. Life on the island; that's the way they have to be, but it is fun to watch them out there."
The biggest wildcard in the secondary is safety-turned-corner Jimmie Ward. The sophomore rarely played at safety in 2010, but was named both NIU's freshman of the year and special teams player of the year. Ward blocked a school-record three punts, taking one against Ball State back for a touchdown.
News that he would be switching to corner for 2011 came as a shock to Ward, but the Alabama native quickly shifted his focus to the nuances of his new position.
"When they told me I would be switching, I was like ‘uh, man that's a lot of coverage,'" Ward said. "So it has taken me a minute to catch on, but I'm doing better each day. I just have to work on my press technique and to look for the ball when my back is toward the quarterback."
Another corner to keep an eye on is redshirt sophomore Sean Evans. The two-year veteran of the practice squad showcased some good ball skills before going down with an undisclosed minor injury last week.
"These guys have been in the program," said defensive backs coach Richard McNutt of Evans and the rest of the inexperienced DB's. "They have been waiting for their time. They are hungry and...now they get to do it on the big stage."