Huskies’ turf changes

By Matt Stacionis

NIU football coach Joe Novak doesn’t really mind that his team has to wrap up spring practice at the DeKalb Recreation Center.

True, finishing the last two of 15 allotted practices away from Huskie Stadium means there won’t be the traditional scrimmage game, but it’s for a good cause: The old stadium turf was removed Wednesday and will be replaced with a new grass-style turf that Novak hopes will hold huge benefits.

“I’m as excited as I can be,” he said. “The people who have it think it’s the greatest thing. It’s going to be a great surface. Some of the pros who have played on it won’t go back to grass.”

The turf will cover the entire floor of the stadium, eliminating the red tile that once lined the outer edges. And to make up for not having an official spring scrimmage, the team has held mini-scrimmages at practices, with last Saturday’s being the biggest of the 15.

“We’re limited to what we can do at the DeKalb Rec Center,” Novak admitted.

Taking charge

Linebacker Larry Williams surprised some people by being named to the All Mid-American Conference Second Team last season. Novak and the coaching staff were confident in his ability, but the often-overshadowed Williams was in a tough spot — as the team’s third linebacker, he had to play alongside seniors Cameron Saulsby and Kevin Selover.

Because those players and senior Rocky Newton graduate, most of the linebacking burden falls on Williams, who’s also been dealing with an injury this spring.

“He’s been limited,” Novak said. “He has a bad knee and been a little bit limited. He has practiced every day.”

Novak doesn’t think the knee is very serious and expects that Williams will be back at 100 percent by fall. When he does return at full strength, he’ll likely do some damage to MAC opponents and take over some of the defensive leadership.

“Larry is a big-play guy for us, and both the team and coaches look to him for that,” Novak said.

Also …

Randee Drew and Vince Thompson have been filling in on some vacated defensive spots. They, along with last year’s breakout Demerist Whitfield, are part of a defense backfield that graduates two players this year. Whitfield and Thompson both started last season, with Drew seeing less playing time.

“All three of those kids have all had a great spring,” Novak said. “That’s what happens when teams graduate seniors.”

Akil Grant and Jon Pendergrass have assumed the safety role of Jermaine Hampton, who also graduates. Pendergrass will be a fifth-year senior, while Grant will enter only his second season next year.

Offense: Last season’s spring practices gave Thomas Hammock a chance to show what he could do. He followed up the spring with a 1,000-yard rushing season.

And though William Andrews was still the team’s No. 1 running back last spring, Hammock got a lot of quality reps in with the starting offense. It helped in the success of both him and freshman Michael Turner, who nearly joined Hammock at the 1,000-yard plateau.

“I look at Thomas and Michael and I see the improvement out of them,” Novak said. “That may be one of the deepest positions.”

Joining Hammock and Turner in the offensive attack are Jason Hawkins and walk-on Robert Wallace. It was rumored that Hawkins might move to defense this spring, but that isn’t the case yet.

“I promised him I was going to give him a shot,” Novak said. “I want him to play where he wants to play.”

Other areas where Novak believes the offense is starting to pick up the pieces are the line and tight-end slots.

“With Matt Dunker and Joey Reed, I like to think we have as good a pair as any,” he said.

The offensive line especially needs rebuilding. NIU loses NFL draft hopeful Ryan Diem, as well as Kyle Jakubek and McAllister Collins. Adding to that, guards Gram Sleight and Greg Clemens have not practiced all spring.

Last year’s line was a big reason for NIU’s highest-scoring offense in school history. John Pederson and Joel Ellis are practicing this spring, and Novak has been impressed with their showing.

“We lost a lot of physicalness with those three seniors, but they’re doing a great job of being sound,” he said.