A lot to look forward to with Thomas Hammock era

Head+Coach+Thomas+Hammock+was+welcomed+back+to+NIU+during+his+Jan.+18%2C+2019+introductory+news+conference.

Courtesy NIU Athletics

Head Coach Thomas Hammock was welcomed back to NIU during his Jan. 18, 2019 introductory news conference.

Mike Knapp, Columnist

NIU is two football seasons into the Thomas Hammock Era, and on paper it looks like an unmitigated disaster.

Under Hammock’s watch, NIU had played to a 5-12 record, including an 0-5 record this season as the Huskies head to Eastern Michigan University Saturday to close out the 2020 campaign.

Over the last two seasons, the Huskies have lost four games by more than three touchdowns, and their combined 4-9 record in Mid-American Conference play is one of the worst stretches in league play this program has seen since the turn of the century.

 Looking at his resume so far, the best conclusion to make would be that Hammock isn’t a fit here, and that maybe the university should go shopping for a new coach this winter.

However, as someone who has covered the team for the last two years, I’m here to say that if the university moved on from Hammock, it would be a huge mistake. Actually, an enormous mistake is more like it.

For much of his tenure, Hammock has been coaching with one arm tied behind his back. In 2019, injuries to key players decimated any chance they had at reaching the same heights as the 2018 team, which won the MAC title.

This season, injuries have once again played a part, but most of the Huskies’ struggles can be traced to a lack of experience. NIU lined up nine first-year players in Saturday’s 41-24 loss to the University of Toledo, putting rookies in the lineup in key positions like running back and the defensive secondary. That wouldn’t work in high school, let alone a Division I football program.

Between true first-year players and redshirts, the Huskies have 60 first-year players on the roster, making it the second-youngest team in the Football Bowl Subdivision behind the University of Oregon. Fellow MAC compatriot Bowling Green State University is in the same boat, with 64 first-years.Their struggles are even worse, as the Falcons have never been in any of their games this season, including last Saturday when they lost by 28 points to the University of Akron, a team that hadn’t won a game in two years.

 One thing to also keep in mind is that the players coming to DeKalb aren’t the same five-star recruits that choose the Big Ten or the Southeastern Conference. The kids coming here are the players that the Power 5 schools overlooked, or didn’t even consider. It will be a rare day when a player comes to NIU and can make an immediate impact from the first snap of their career.

Players at this level must be developed, and that takes time. It will require reps on the field and in the weight room, film study and just flat-out getting accustomed to the speed of the game. I’ve covered a couple hundred high school games in my writing career from the sidelines, but it wasn’t until last year that I got to watch a college game from that vantage point, and the difference is startling.

“(Playing) gets me more used to the collegiate level,” first-year running back Harrison Waylee said after the Toledo game. “The game is so fast, and practicing against our defense helps me get used to what I need to be able to do in a game.”

 Waylee looks to be developing into a promising player, but it hasn’t been easy. There’s been fumbles and missed blocks, and the benching that goes along with those mistakes. For some players, the college game starts to click, and Waylee had that moment against Toledo when he scored his first collegiate touchdown and totaled a combined 138 yards rushing and receiving.

It’s starting to click for wide receiver Trayvon Rudolph, who is beginning to make big plays every game, and safety Devin Lafayette, who had a team-high 13 tackles and picked up his first career interception against Toledo.

 That “clicking” is going on all over the field, week by week, at one level or another. The Huskies are starting to compete, having held the lead into the fourth quarter in each of the last three games. Learning to close out those wins will be the next step for several players, but Hammock and his staff have shown they can develop players and make them better.

Make no mistake, this program is in total rebuild mode, which is a hard fact to take for many who have seen the Huskies become one of the best non-Power 5 teams of the last decade. But with the talent Hammock has and what’s coming, the rebuild won’t last long.

Hammock can flat-out coach, because if he couldn’t, he wouldn’t have worked under one Hall of Fame coach, Barry Alvarez, and another who has a Super Bowl ring and may end up in the Hall of Fame, John Harbaugh. He just needs more time to mold this team into his image.

What will work to his advantage is that in the eyes of the NCAA, this season doesn’t count towards overall eligibility. That means players like Waylee and Lafayette still have four years left after this, and redshirt senior playmaking wide receiver Tyrice Richie can come back next year if he so chooses, something he is currently leaning towards.

In reality, this season is perfect for a program like NIU. Hammock and his staff get to develop players this year and still get full careers from them down the road. That means more than winning games right now.

Hammock has done an admirable job, but that’s not to say he doesn’t have areas of improvement too. His loyalty to redshirt senior quarterback Ross Bowers is at times both baffling and frustrating as Bowers has struggled through long stretches of mediocre play while equally-talented quarterbacks are sitting on the bench.

I’d rather see this team getting reps and developing first-year quarterback Dustin Fletcher, a big, strong dual-threat player in the mold of Marcus Childers, or even, dare I say it, Jordan Lynch. He’s the future, not a guy who seems to be doing everything he can on the field to not get hit.

Hammock’s teams also lack discipline at times, committing stupid penalties that often end their own drives or extend the opponent’s. The play calling can be very bland, and the staff seems to at times struggle with halftime adjustments.

Still, when I look at this program, I see a gold mine of talented players, and more are coming. It’s why Hammock should be given more time, because he deserves the opportunity to show what kind of coach he is while working on a level playing field.

I think there’s still going to be growing pains for another year or two, but if Hammock continues to recruit the way he has to this point they’ll be conference contenders again soon,” Northern Star beat writer James Krause said. “When you look at the first-year players that are starting for them and how good they are out of the gate, imagine how they could be with [more] experience.”

No doubt this season has been brutal, and a loss to Eastern Michigan will give the Huskies their first winless season since 1997. But brighter days are ahead, and I will make this prediction: in two years the Huskies will post a 10-win season and win the MAC title under the coaching of Thomas Hammock.

“Release the Kraken” has been a phrase that has been floating around for the last several weeks, and there is one lying in wait in DeKalb. When that day comes, and it will soon, NIU and Hammock will have something special.