Hutton leads inexperienced LBs

By Marc Marin

The new starting linebackers for the NIU football team don’t really qualify as Huskies yet. They’re more like Puppies.

That’s not a slight to starters Jason Hutton (middle linebacker), T.J. Griffin (strongside) and Keenan Blalark (weakside). They just haven’t proved anything yet.

The coaching staff can’t really know what it has with the group until the trio plays a few games.

NIU football coach Joe Novak said it himself Tuesday.

“I think [the linebackers] are pretty athletic so we’ll just have to see how they perform,” Novak said.

Hutton is the only one of the group with significant playing time, but he doesn’t have the speed of Javan Lee, who is out for the season after undergoing surgery for a herniated disk. Hutton played in all 12 games last season, including one start in place of All-MAC performer Brian Atkinson.

Blalark has just 65 collegiate snaps under his belt. Griffin is a redshirt freshman who has never taken the field for the Huskies. Not only that, but Griffin is making the move from running back to linebacker. He began 2004 as NIU’s No. 8 tailback.

Hutton didn’t seem too concerned with his charges’ inexperience when interviewed Tuesday night, but even if he did have misgivings, he wouldn’t be admitting it to the media four days before the Huskies open the season at No. 4 Michigan.

“I have total confidence in the two guys next to me,” Hutton said. “They’re like my brothers. If they make a mistake, I make a mistake. I got their back, they got mine.”

The situation wouldn’t be nearly as bad if Lee wasn’t watching the season from the sidelines. When he played under control, Lee was an absolute wrecking-ball for the Huskies last season. He led the team with 16 tackles for loss and was named a First-Team All-MAC player last season. He would have been the leading returning tackler in the MAC.

Now, the Huskies find themselves in such dire straits that they have three freshmen, including two true freshmen, backing up the starters. That’s a scary thought, even if one of those true freshmen, Josh Allen, has been drawing raves with his athleticism. Don’t be surprised if Allen, even if he is a little undersized, works his way into the starting lineup by the end of the season.

Allen played defensive back his senior year at North Chicago, but the way Novak looks at it, linebackers and defensive backs may as well be interchangeable.

“With how athletic linebackers have become, they’re more like glorified [defensive backs],” Novak said.

Allen has made an impression on Hutton.

“He’s a good talent,” Hutton said. “He’s proved that he can be out on the field with us. He came in with the idea that he was going to play linebacker and he’s learned very quickly.”

All this is not intended to discredit NIU’s linebackers or cause NIU fans’ hearts to beat a little faster. The linebackers could very well turn out to be the highlight of the Huskies’ season.

But more than any other position, fans don’t know what they’re getting out of the linebackers. It’d be hard to believe Novak and his staff do either.

In the meantime, we’re just pointing out the facts, and unless Hutton et al’s performance on the field determines otherwise, the linebackers look to be the weak link in NIU’s defense.