Transfer portal leaders paying off

Lombardi, Ratkovich and Joiner have put their stamp on NIU football in just one game


Courtesy of The Technique

NIU players and coaches storm the field at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Sept. 4 after the Huskies defeated the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets 22-21. It’s the Huskies first win since Nov. 26, 2019.

By James Krause

The story of how NIU pulled off their electric 22-21 victory Saturday over the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets didn’t start with the game-winning drive or the early 14-0 lead.

It started in the days and weeks after the Huskies 2020 season ended when head coach Thomas Hammock turned his attention to what NIU needed to bounce back from a winless season. For a team that had the second-highest percentage of freshmen in the nation, the answer was veteran leadership. 

“With them joining the program compared to last year, we didn’t really have a leader or someone to lead us very well,” freshman running back Harrison Waylee said.

Hammock signed junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi from Michigan State University, who said he came to make an impact on a program on and off the field.

“I think this is a good place with a lot of young talent and a hungry coaching staff,” Lombardi said in an Aug. 27 Northern Star article. “I watched them on film, and I felt like these guys wanted to win. I wanted to be at a place where I could change the program on and off the field, and I wanted to be at a place where the offense suits me well.”

Hammock also picked up redshirt senior running back Clint Ratkovich and redshirt junior tight end Miles Joiner from the transfer portal this past spring. The return on investment has already been huge.

“They mean everything from a leadership standpoint,” Hammock said. “They rallied the guys and were men in the locker room. I think we added some key pieces in Rocky, Clint and Miles Joiner on offense. They allow us to play the type of football we want to play.”

Lombardi went 11-for-17 for 156 yards with two touchdown passes, one to Joiner and the other to Ratkovich on the game-winning drive with 38 seconds left. 

While his stats look good, his true presence in the result is as a leader. Hammock credited Lombardi for rallying the team after the injury to redshirt freshman safety Devin Lafayette and seeing a 14-0 lead snuffed out.

“He’s an extension of our coaching staff,” Hammock said. “We put a lot on him. After the first half and first couple of drives, I said, ‘let’s get in 22 and let’s see who’s the tougher team.’”

A similar story follows Ratkovich and Joiner. Joiner had just one other catch Saturday night and Ratkovich only ran for 13 yards. The Huskies’ leading rusher Waylee said the two still have made a tremendous impact on the team through being present for a young roster. 

“With them, it just feels like we have someone to go talk to or someone to get us up when we’re down. They’re someone who’s positive and always keeps us going. It’s just always great to have those guys around and they’re great leaders too.”

In a year where many projected NIU to be near the bottom of the Mid-American Conference, a win like Saturday and the leadership being boasted about by Huskies could propel them to overachieve expectations in Hammock’s third season.