Huskie defense leads them towards MAC title game

By James Krause

Football Head Coach Rod Carey said he doesn’t always trust the numbers, but at the Huskies’ Chicago Media Day July 18, he said defense in 2017 changed his attitude.

“I think sometimes the numbers lie, and you can manipulate them,” Carey said. “In our defense’s case last year, they didn’t lie.”

The numbers and record of the Huskies were not deceptive. NIU ranked 25th in the nation in total defense, 16th in rushing defense and allowed 22 points per game.

Following the season, then defensive coordinator Kevin Kane left NIU for the same position at Southern Methodist University, and questions arose if the strong defense would remain.

When Kane left, the defense could have taken a step back, but it only leaped forward and improved into one of the best in the nation.

NIU now allows an average of 20.9 points per game while leading the nation in sacks with 46. The Huskies give up an average of 2.6 yards per rushing attempt, second only to the Clemson Tigers who allow 2.2 yards per attempt. NIU also ranks in the top 10 in tackles for a loss. A new off-the-field face in the Huskies’ defense has made the difference.

The new defensive coordinator

The man that filled the void to lead the NIU defense is Jeff Knowles, a man who left a career in law enforcement to pursue his dream of becoming a football coach.

“One of the reasons I left [law enforcement] was I loved football,” Knowles said. “[I] loved working with these guys and that was a big part of why I came back. It’s an honor to be competing at this level.”

Knowles, an Illinois native, played linebacker for the University of Saint Francis from 1996 to 2000.

Knowles joined the coaching staff in 2008, becoming defensive coordinator before getting his first coaching opportunity in the Football Bowl Series with North Carolina State in 2014.

In 2017, Knowles became a linebacker coach for NIU and filled the vacant coordinator position, something Carey said was on his mind when he brought Knowles on board.

“When I got a chance to hire Jeff, I thought [becoming defensive coordinator] could be a possibility in the future; that’s how much respect I have for his knowledge of the game and the way he teaches,” Carey said in a Feb. 27 news release when Knowles’ promotion was announced.

Even with a year on the staff, Knowles had to establish himself in his new role. Knowles understands that to get players to buy into his coaching, strong trust needs to be established between his staff, players and him.

“It’s hard for me to ask these guys to give everything they’ve got if I don’t feel the same way about them,” Knowles said. “They know I would do anything for them. So the biggest thing I think is our guys care about each other. They play for the guy next to them, and I think they know their coaching staff feels the same way about them.”

Knowles said he feels the defense mirrors their coordinator is through their love of the game. The coach said this love shows in the team’s work ethic and willingness to learn.

“Being a coach is like being a teacher,” Knowles said. “If you’re a teacher, there’s nothing better than having kids that want to learn. I feel like I’m a teacher, and I’ve got a bunch of students who are bursting for knowledge. They want to learn, and they want to do everything they can to prove themselves.”

The returning, quiet leader

No player drew higher praise from Knowles than redshirt junior linebacker Kyle Pugh, who returned this season after an arm injury that ended his sophomore season early.

After months of recovery and getting back into the defense, Pugh said his patience has paid off.

“It was definitely a rough start at the beginning of the season,” Pugh said. “I had to become acclimated to things and let the plays come to me. It’s definitely amazing to be back out there with my teammates.”

Knowles credits Pugh’s ability to be calm and collected as to why he is a leader in the locker room and on the field.

“Kyle has something about him that people look to him,” Knowles said. “He’s a calm guy, but he takes things to heart, and he cares a lot. He’s got a calm leadership about him to where the guys know they can count on him.”

For all the calmness the Chicago Heights native carried in his leadership, game day is when Pugh shows pure, raw emotion. Pugh is unapologetic in saying what drives him: hate for losing.

“I really just don’t like to lose,” Pugh said. “I kind of take it personally, as my guys versus whoever we go up against. A loss is personal to me, so I put everything I have into it.”

The hate for losing drives Pugh, sometimes carries beyond the final whistle, as explained to Coach Carey by Pugh’s father.

“Every time we would lose a game, even when [Pugh] wasn’t playing, he would be in tears in the locker room afterward,” Carey said at his July 18 press conference at Chicago Media Day. “His father goes ‘No Coach, you’ve got to understand. Those aren’t tears of sadness, those are tears of anger.’”

The athletic juggernaut

While Pugh’s leadership is vital, the name on most people’s mind when it comes to NIU’s defense is junior defensive lineman Sutton Smith.

Smith was on the radar of Alabama and it’s head coach Nick Saban when he was running back in high school, according to a Dec. 26 Detroit News article, but injuries meant Smith only received one FBS offer, that coming from NIU.

Fast forward a few years and the All-American defensive end is once again among the leading pass rushers in the nation with 13 sacks, one shy of his nation-leading 14 last season.

Knowles said his speed from running the ball carried over in his transition to defensive lineman, giving him the quickness to beat opponents of any size.

“The thing that stands out is his speed and explosiveness off the ball,” Knowles said. “There are tons of guys like that in college football, but there are few guys willing to switch positions and be selfless enough to say, ‘I don’t want to be a running back because this could be best for me.”

The breakout star and standard bearer

Junior linebacker Antonio Jones-Davis has made the most of his own transition, going from a role player behind upperclassman in 2017 to becoming the team leader in tackles with 104.

Pugh said that Jones-Davis is a measuring stick for the team in terms of putting in the work and being a quality teammate.

“Antonio brings the same attitude to work every day,” Pugh said. “He’s a competitor and he expects up to stay up to that standard. We pull each other together and if someone starts falling behind, he’s always quick to snatch them up and reassure him we have goals that can accomplish.”

Knowles said Jones-Davis hasn’t done anything that he wasn’t doing before this season, he’s just finally getting his opportunity.

“It’s another year that he’s been getting better and he works so hard at the little things to get better every day,” Knowles said. “He plays so hard. You aren’t going to find another linebacker that plays as hard as he does.”

Knowles said he thinks Jones-Davis represents the best part of his entire defense, the amount of talent on the team that is invested into football.

“We’re very lucky,” Knowles said. “We’ve got some great kids. On some teams you may get a few kids this good. We’ve got a lot of them.”

The defense has helped the Huskies clinch the Mid-American Conference West Division title, sending them to Detroit to face the Buffalo Bulls on Friday for the MAC championship. A win would give the Huskies their first conference title since 2015.