Football continues grind in offseason

By Matt Stacionis

Cameron Saulsby’s football career is still going strong.

The NIU senior linebacker returned to Orlando to play in front of his hometown and an ESPN2-televised audience in the 2001 Rotary Gridiron Classic. The game pit an all-star squad for Saulsby’s home state of Florida against Team USA, players selected from every other state. Saulsby’s team won 10-0 in the third annual showdown.

Penn State quarterback Rashard Casey hit Florida State tightend Ryan Sprague on a 6-yard pass for the game’s only touchdown. Casey was named the game’s MVP. Western Michigan running back and Mid-American Conference Offensive Player of the Year Sanford played on Team USA.

Saulsby is projected as a sixth-round draft pick by The Sporting News.

“You have to figure it’s a great thrill for Cameron to be in such a game and playing in your hometown in front of his family and friends, not to mention the NFL scouts,” said NIU football coach Joe Novak. “And, obviously, it’s great exposure for our football program to have Cameron included in such a group. We know he’ll do well out there.”

Saulsby was the first NIU player to play in a postseason all-star game since XFL runningback Leshon Johnson made the Senior Bowl in 1994. Offensive tackle Ryan Diem will appear in the Senior Bowl this Saturday.

Other postseason notes: Diem and receiver Justin McCareins were both invited to a combine-style workout in front of NFL scouts.

Moving on: After producing the highest scoring offense in school history, it isn’t very surprising that NIU assistant coaches have been looked at by other programs.

Offensive line coach Jay Boulware left for a position at the University of Arizona, and quarterback coach Rocky Alt took the head coaching job at Otterbein College. Novak isn’t surprised that NIU coaches are being offered jobs because of the success that the Huskies have had since their arrival in 1996. Alt and Boulware were both hired in Novak’s first season.

“I hate to see those guys go, but they’re great personal moves,” Novak said. “Western Michigan lost five coaches last year.

Early 2001 outlook: Defensive back Benji Peacock will not return to the Huskies lineup next season. Peacock, who was academically ineligible last year, is reportedly transferring to Southwest Missouri State.

Darrell Hill was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA after suffering a broken finger early in the season. Novak said that Hill now has some academic work to do before he can return to the team next season.

Keep ’em rolling: Freshman kicker Steve Azar was named a First-Team Freshman All-American by Football News. Azar was the only MAC player to be named on the unit. He finished with the school record for the most consecutive field goals, most single-game extra points and most single-season extra points.

Arena: Former NIU defensive lineman Rasche Hill has signed to play with Iowa Barnstormers of the Arena Football League. The Barnstormers were the same team that produced 1999 NFL MVP Kurt Warner.

“I think the kid has talent,” said Barnstorm head coach Art Haege. “We brought him in and worked him out. We went live one-on-one pass protection with our veterans. He’s pushing guys around all over the place, has some size and quick feet. I think he can be one of those ‘late bloomers.’ We signed him.”

Hill played for the Huskies in 1997-98 before leaving the university.

Playoff connection: It wasn’t too along ago the Minnesota Viking quarterback Daunte Culpepper was trying to get past NIU’s secondary. Culpepper played against NIU in 1998, when he was sacked twice by NIU linebacker Kevin Selover.

Culpepper, who was named an All Pro, and the Vikings made it to the NFC Championship game before losing 41-0 to the New York Giants.