Football confident in strong defense

James Krause

Since their loss in the Quick Lane Bowl in December, the NIU football team has had their eyes set on the new season.

Football felt like it was just around the corner July 18 at Ditka’s Restaurant in Chicago, where members of the media got to talk to several NIU players and coaches before the season’s beginning.

The Huskies have a lot to be confident about going into the season, especially starting quarterback, redshirt sophomore Marcus Childers.

After a rotation of starters over the past two seasons due to injury, Childers was thrown into the starting job early last year and quickly grew into the role. With 1,674 yards and 16 touchdown passes, Childers was voted the Mid-American Conference Freshman of the Year by league coaches.

Head Coach Rod Carey, entering his sixth year with NIU in his position, said Childers’ game still has some aspects that need further development, but the ceiling is high for the young quarterback.

“There is more runway in front of [Childers] then there is behind,” Carey said at the July 18 news conference. “He’s in that good category, now he just has to get all the nuances. Timing with his wide receivers, comfort with his offense, being able to check a play, check a protection and manage a game situationally. All those things will take him from good to great.”

Carey said he felt confident in his running back platoon heading into the seasons, led by redshirt junior Marcus Jones.

“[The running backs] could probably be the best in the conference,” Carey said.

Jones started in three games last season for the Huskies, most notably being Oct. 26 against Eastern Michigan, where he had a nine yard touchdown run to earn the victory in overtime. Jones said last year’s experience will help the team as they know he is reliable in clutch situations.

“That experience will help me moving forward, especially when my team needs me and we’re in critical moments,” Jones said.

The team brings back all of it’s starting offensive linemen, including two-time first team All-MAC left tackle, redshirt senior Max Scharping. Carey said most importantly he wanted to see improvement on the offensive line.

“It wasn’t good enough last year,” Carey said. “They realize that too and they are working to correct that and I saw a lot of progress in spring.”

The Huskies’ defense was key to their success last season and a good portion of the defense returns. This includes redshirt defensive end Sutton Smith, who was named MAC Defensive Player of the Year last season after leading the nation with 30 tackles for a loss.

Smith says he is not letting the pressure of his breakout year last year change how he prepares for the season.

“If you let the pressure or the game get bigger than life and you don’t focus on the little things, you’ll never get anywhere,” Smith said. “I’m just going to do what I do. I know what I have to do to get better and keep making plays.”

Smith is joined on the line by junior Ben LeRoy, senior Josh Corcoran and redshirt sophomore Jack Heflin.

Smith and the entire defense will be playing under a new defensive coordinator, as former linebacker coach Jeff Knowles takes over the position. He replaces Kevin Kane, who took the defensive coordinator position at Southern Methodist University.

Smith said Knowles is a player’s coach, always hearing out the concerns of his players.

“You can go talk to him about anything,” Smith said. “There’s really not a whole lot of changes. He knows where our strengths are, he knows where our weaknesses are and he sure as heck knows how to play our defense.”

The Huskies lost some names in their linebacking core this summer, including Jawaun Johnson, who transferred to Texas Christian University. While they lost a few names, the team will see the return of redshirt junior linebacker Kyle Pugh, who suffered a season-ending arm injury four games into last season.

“In those four games, [Pugh] was the best middle linebacker we have had here,” Carey said.

Pugh said sitting on the sideline knowing he could have contributed more to the team last year makes him anxious to go out and play again, now as a leader on defense.

“I never felt like I couldn’t go out and make an impact in the game,” Pugh said. “It was an over eight month recovery and I just really want to prove myself that I can be even better than I was.”

The team also received redshirt senior kicker Andrew Gantz, a transfer from Cincinnati. Gantz has made 39 of 49 field goals in his career, earning him two nominations for the Lou Groza Award for the best kicker in the nation in 2017 and 2018.

The team is up against a tough schedule of prestigiuos football programs, including road games against Iowa, Florida State and Brigham Young University.

“I’m excited for game one,” Pugh said. “Not because of who it’s against but because I’ve been gone so long. I just want to go out and hit someone that’s not wearing the same uniform as me.”

The Huskies open the season at 2:30 p.m. Sept. 1 against the Iowa Hawkeyes in Iowa City.