NIU football bringing own ‘juice’ to games during times of coronavirus

Redshirt+junior+cornerback+Dillon+Thomas+%28left%29+runs+a+drill++in+practice+Oct.+15+at+Huskie+Stadium.+Thomas+is+wearing+the+B.Y.O.J.+jersey+awarded+to+the+player+who+brings+the+most+energy+in+practice.

Justin Nicely | Courtesy NIU Athletics

Redshirt junior cornerback Dillon Thomas (left) runs a drill in practice Oct. 15 at Huskie Stadium. Thomas is wearing the B.Y.O.J. jersey awarded to the player who brings the most energy in practice.

James Krause, Sports Editor

DeKALB — Redshirt senior linebacker Kyle Pugh brings something to practice to help motivate him through the early morning workouts in the cold.

“[Pugh] has been bringing a mini juice box,” cornerbacks coach Dan Jackson said. “The kind of one you used to pack in your lunch going to school when you were a kid. Every morning, I see him walk in with one. It’s a mental thing and it’s a goofy deal but he’s embraced that.”

Shifting schedules, raised health precautions and a lack of fans in the stands makes this upcoming season tough for NIU football players. Head Coach Thomas Hammock said he thinks he and his staff have come up with a simple solution.

B.Y.O.J.— bring your own ‘juice’.

“We’ve created our own energy and our own juice,” Hammock said. “Our players have bought into that. We have a lot of excitement now at practice. To me, we’ll be fully prepared when Nov. 4 comes.”

Hammock assigned Jackson, as well as wide receivers coach Tony Sorrentino and defensive ends coach Travis Moore, to head the unofficially named ‘Juice Committee’ and help generate ideas in the weeks leading up the eventual return of Mid-American Conference football. 

“Coach is a real forward-thinker,” Jackson said. “He’s always one step ahead. We got a text a few weeks before we knew the season was going to go, started having some meetings about it and went from there.”

Redshirt junior cornerback Dillon Thomas (left) attempts to stay in from of first-year wide receiver Joe Sikma (right) Oct. 15 during practice at Huskies Stadium. (Justin Nicely | Courtesy NIU Athletics)

Hammock cited his coaching experiences in both college and the NFL as to why energy and excitement needed to be prioritized, saying college players feed off of attending crowds more than the pros.

“I spent five years in the NFL,” Hammock said. “There, you don’t need to energize those guys, they get paid to play. I think the beauty of college football is you have young men, 18 to 23 years old, that need energy and excitement. They need fans, they need excitement.” 

The team has posted through social media tons of their efforts to keep players loose in preseason camp. From dance battles to smashing concrete blocks, the Huskies are trying all sorts of things to keep players motivated in practice.

One effort stands out on a field of red and black: a yellow jersey sporting ‘B.Y.O.J.’ on the front and ‘Juiced’ on the back that is worn by who brings the most energy in practice.

“We’ve had guys wear that at practices and that guy has to be nominated by the coaches,” Jackson said. “After practice, that guy talks to the team and it brings a lot of positive energy.”

The jersey’s purpose is two-fold for the staff, not only awarding extra effort in practices but using it as a chance to develop player confidence to lead their teammates. Jackson said just like with working on plays and fundamentals, leadership shown in practice should translate well to gameday.

“Ideally, by having a guy wear the juice jersey at practice and having him talk to the team and get comfortable in that role,” Jackson said. “Then they’ll do that during the game.”

Jackson cited several players who have developed into leadership roles as a result of the yellow uniforms, redshirt senior tight end Daniel Crawford being one of them. Crawford said the battle to claim the jersey adds competitive fire that breeds positivity.

“Soon as we brought up the ‘juice committee,’ everyone wanted to be a part of it,” Crawford said. “You see someone out there with that yellow jersey on and they just want to be a part of that. They want to bring the juice. It’s contagious. It’s very hard being negative when you’re surrounded by a group being positive.”

The ‘juice committee’ festivities aren’t being limited to practices. With only family members of players being allowed in the stands, the team will have several things planned for game day. 

For the offense, a drum on the sidelines for players to bang on after a touchdown or big play. For the defense, a chain with a dog bone at the end for players to throw on after forcing a turnover. And Jackson said that’s just the beginning of what’s in store. 

“Coach Hammock said I can’t give it all to you but if you tune in on ESPN2 [on game day], I think you’re going to see some fun things on the sidelines,” Jackson said.

The challenges 2020 will bring to the Huskies won’t stop when they kickoff against the University at Buffalo Bulls, and not just because of the ways COVID-19 has shaken up the sport. The Huskies were voted to finish last in their division in the MAC Preseason Coaches’ poll released Wednesday. Jackson said he hopes the efforts of himself and the staff will move the needle in terms of success.

“Anything you do,” Jackson said. “If you do it with great energy and great enthusiasm. There’s definitely a higher chance of success than doing something without energy or enthusiasm.”

Kickoff for their season opener against Buffalo is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Nov. 4. Stock up on ‘juice’ accordingly.