Huskies prepare for Yellow Jackets

Football team hopes to start 2021 with win against Georgia Tech

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James Krause

Redshirt junior wide reciever Cole Tucker runs after a catch in a Aug. 20 practice. Tucker had 13 catches for 136 yards in 2020.

By James Krause

DeKALB — The return of college football gives NIU a chance to wipe the memories of a winless 2020 campaign, starting Saturday in Atlanta against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.

Head coach Thomas Hammock spoke Tuesday at NIU’s first in-person weekly press conference since before the COVID-19 pandemic, saying his team started game week training Tuesday morning after a day of rest. 

With a roster made up of 87 freshmen, 33 of which played last year and earned extra eligibility due to the pandemic, Hammock said he tried to prepare his young team by going “old school” in offseason training.

“This morning’s practice really did a lot to calm my nerves when it comes to practice,” Hammock said. “We took a day and a half off to rehab our bodies and get ready for the game. Our camp was very physical and tough. We went old school, coach (Joe) Novak style. We conditioned them after practice and made it as hard as possible. So nothing should come as a shock to them when they get to the game.”

Redshirt junior wide receiver Cole Tucker said the Huskies’ improvement will be shown in their heightened maturity.

“The biggest jump I’ve seen is in how mature they’ve gotten,” Tucker said. “Obviously, last year was an awkward year. With maturity, they’ve learned to not focus on outside matters and focus on themselves and perfecting their craft.”

The young Huskies will have a daunting road test to start their season. After playing in front of fewer than 300 fans all of last year, NIU will play Georgia Tech in the 55,000-seat Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta. 

“We have to handle the environment early,” Hammock said. “We have to play clean football. We can’t be wilding out because of the White-Out or whatever they have going on there. This will be the first game in front of fans for a lot of guys, and I think we have to embrace that.”

Hammock will be standing across from Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins, both starting their third seasons with their respective programs. The Yellow Jackets offense has gone away from the triple-option that was a Tech staple before Collins arrived and now uses a pro-style spread attack.

Hammock said he and his coaches have studied the film of the Yellow Jackets 3-7 season last year in hopes of weeding out what to expect this Saturday.

“We have 10 games of information and the style of play they want to play,” Hammock said. “We’ve got a pretty good gauge of their personnel, how they’re going to attack, and we think we have a really good game plan for them.

The Huskies will try to contain the dual-threat attack of COVID-19 freshman quarterback Jeff Sims. Sims completed only 54.9% of his passes in his 10 starts as a true freshman but led the team with six rushing touchdowns. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle James Ester said the focus for NIU will be to slow the GT running game.

“The biggest priority is making (Sims) win the game with his arm,” Ester said. “We’re going to stop the run; that’s going to be a major priority for us. They have a deep-running back room and a talented quarterback. We’re just going to stop the run, make him throw the ball, and see what he does.”

Kickoff for the game is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. CST, with the broadcast being live on the ACC Network. Radio broadcasts will be available locally on WLBK 98.9 FM or 1360 AM.