NIU’s offense is going to look a little different in 2020

Hammock says expectations for offense haven’t changed

Redshirt+senior+quarterback+Ross+Bowers+practices+on+Oct.+16+at+Huskie+Stadium.+Bowers+returns+as+a+starter+after+ending+last+season+on+the+sideline+due+to+injury.

James Krause | Northern Star

Redshirt senior quarterback Ross Bowers practices on Oct. 16 at Huskie Stadium. Bowers returns as a starter after ending last season on the sideline due to injury.

James Krause, Sports Editor

DeKALB — The focus of the NIU football team and Head Coach Thomas Hammock isn’t on their offseason changes or their hypercompetitive conference opposition: The focus is on the Huskies.

“To me, the only people that matter are the people in our locker room and the people on that practice field every day,” Hammock said. “You’re going to see a competitive team, a team that’s extremely hungry.”

The one thing the team will have to put focus on is the unavoidable changes COVID-19 has brought, as evident in their Preseason Media Day on Tuesday. Hammock and several NIU players spoke to the media via a Zoom meeting, addressing their upcoming season that starts Nov. 4.

The return of a fall football season has forced the team to shuffle around their preparation methods. Practices are being held as early as 6 a.m. on weekdays and some meetings have been moved online.

Hammock said his team is following how COVID-19 is affecting other football teams around the country in an effort to minimize the team’s risk of an outbreak. 

“It’s a constant education for our players,” Hammock said. “We’ve talked about every team that’s had an outbreak and why they’ve had an outbreak, college or pros. We want to make sure we take the proper steps necessary to avoid that happening in our program.”

NIU looks to bounce back from a 5-7 campaign last season in Hammock’s first as head coach. The Huskies will have to find redemption without their two best rushers from last season. Senior running back Tre Harbison transferred to the University of Charlotte and redshirt junior running back Jordan Nettles has opted out of the 2020 season.

Head Coach Thomas Hammock observes NIU’s practice Oct. 16, at Huskie Stadium. (James Krause | Northern Star)

Likely to takeover in the backfield are redshirt first-year Rondarious Gregory and junior running back Erin Collins, a transfer from Hutchinson Community College. Redshirt senior Benn Olson said the offensive line isn’t worried about the changes in the backfield. 

“We know we have some really talented running backs,” Olsen said. “We’re really confident in who we’ve got back there. I don’t think our approach on how to block for any given guy really changes.”

The offense and their expectations haven’t changed for Hammock, who said he wants to see more out of his offense under redshirt senior quarterback Ross Bowers.

“I don’t anticipate the offense changing,” Hammock said. “I anticipate the offense to be better, more effective, and more explosive. We have a quarterback that understands our system and what everybody else’s role is on the offense. I think what you’re going to see is he has guys around him who can make plays.”

Bowers transferred to NIU last year and took over the starting role from quarterback Marcus Childers, but struggled to find consistency and battled injuries throughout the season. Bowers threw for 2,130 yards, seven touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2019.

The University of California transfer Bowers returns as a starter, and  he said he thinks he’s found a rhythm in his second year with offensive coordinator Eric Eidsness. 

“It’s made all the difference not having to learn a new way to talk and different lingo,” Bowers said. “It’s been so much easier to be able to stack my previous knowledge on top of the experience I’m getting in practice with camp.”

Bowers and redshirt senior tight end Daniel Crawford are among the few upperclassmen on a roster that in total has 46 first-year players. Crawford said he’s liked taking a role in developing the future of NIU’s program.

“That’s something I’ve tried to take a lot of pride in as of late,” Crawford said. “Just setting the culture and the standard for how things should be done or how they’ve been done correctly from my years at NIU. Us older guys have their routine and know what they have to do before practice and after practice. My biggest challenge has been bringing people along.”

Growing pains may be most felt on defense, particularly in the secondary. Redshirt junior cornerback Dillon Thomas is now the most experienced member of a secondary that only includes one other upperclassman.

Redshirt senior tight end Daniel Crawford runs with the ball Oct. 16, during practice at Huskie Stadium. (James Krause | Northern Star)

Thomas played strong for NIU last season, picking up double-digit tackles against the University of Toledo Rockets and Eastern Michigan University Eagles. Thomas said he’ll try to make an impact by applying what he learned from former teammates.

“It was really weird to suddenly be the spotlight of the defensive backs,” Thomas said. “Guys like Mykelti Williams and Trayshon Foster, through their leadership and the way they did things, I just sat back and watched how they handled situations and plays and just tried to wait for my time. I’m excited.”

Redshirt senior linebackers Kyle Pugh and Lance Deveaux Jr. return after injuries sidelined them both last year. They’ll get to finally play alongside the likes of redshirt junior linebackers Vinny Labus and Jordan Cole, who shined in their relief. 

Deveaux Jr. said his time on the sidelines helped him grow into the leadership role NIU needs filled on the defensive side of the ball.

“I think the biggest thing for me was being more of a vocal leader,” Deveaux Jr. said. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve kind of been a guy behind the scenes getting guys right. Now, I’m harping on being more of a vocal leader and helping these young guys since we have a really young group.”

There’s no room for error for NIU and their Mid-American Conference rivals. Their six-game schedule includes no bye weeks and comes as the temperature starts to drop and harsh conditions become more likely. Hammock said his approach to the season has changed from last year to adjust to changing conditions and a shorter season.

“Because of when we’re playing and how we’re playing, my approach has changed slightly,” Hammock said. “We’re going to practice outside everyday. We’re not going to go through that same growing pain, that same growing experience. We’re going to practice in the elements, play in the elements and embrace the elements.”  

The Huskies kickoff the season at 6 p.m. on Nov. 4 at Huskie Stadium, facing the University at Buffalo Bulls. The game will be broadcasted on ESPN2.