One constant throughout the season was the play of Larry English. As a junior, the Aurora native dominated the line of scrimmage from his right defensive end spot, collecting 10.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss to rank 11th and 18th in the country, respectively, in those categories. While playing 894 of 916 defensive snaps on the year, English made 67 tackles. Following the season, he was honored by the Mid-American Conference coaches as the winner of the Vern Smith Leadership Award, given annually to the MVP of the league. He became the first defensive player to win the award since 1982.
"He's just a great player," says Kill.
But English is not alone. Like English, Alex Krutsch was a stalwart for the Huskies last season as he started 11 games on the inside, compiling 44 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss. Brandon Bice emerged at the other end spot, totaling 38 tackles and putting on a dominating performance in NIU's win over Kent State with two tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in that contest.
The trio will be re-joined by 2006 starter Craig Rusch, who went down for the season versus Eastern Michigan but made 49 stops with 14 tackles for loss and six sacks at defensive tackle in 2006.
Four sophomores are listed on the second team defensive line as Mike Krause, Ed Jackson, D.J. Pirkle and Jake Coffman gained experience while battling injuries a year ago. While depth has been built and competition for playing time will be intense, Kill's philosophy is to play a lot of people on the defensive line.
"We are going to need to have eight linemen to play the way we like to," Kill said. "You can't play with just four or five. We will be good and deep if we can stay healthy up front. I don't think anybody else in the league has a group like ours."
At linebacker, Kill and his coaches feel the "need for speed." That, and a 20-pound weight gain, prompted the move of 2007 leading tackler Alex Kube from safety to linebacker during the spring. A year ago, the Cary, Ill. product became the first freshman to lead the Huskies in tackles in 31 years en route to Freshman All-America honors as he registered 111 stops. Senior Josh Allen, a 12-game starter last year who ranked third on the team with 89 stops, will challenge Kube for the starting spot in August, as will junior Phil Brown.
In the middle, Tim McCarthy is back after missing the last 10 games of his junior season due to a knee injury. The Huskies' starter in 2005 and 2006, he made over 100 tackles in each of those seasons and his 228 career stops lead all returning players. Returning senior T.J. Griffin and redshirt freshman Pat Schiller, coming off an impressive spring, are in the mix for playing time in the middle of the Huskie defense.
Junior John Tranchitella made 58 tackles and tied for the team lead with six pass break-ups in 2007 and enters 2008 as the Huskies' starter on the weak side. He will be challenged by 2006 starter Cory Hanson.
"Alex Kube is a player and he will make plays wherever you put him," Kill said. "McCarthy is a really good linebacker, we thought he was [NIU's] best when we played against him [last year at SIU]. Tranchitella is getting better, and Griffin and Schiller could be good."
The Huskies' secondary features the deepest position on the team at cornerback where three quality seniors with experience and 48 starts between them - Chase Carter, Melvin Rice and Bradley Pruitt -- are joined by improving sophomore Patrick George, who had a stand-out spring. A junior college transfer, Carter started every game for the Huskies at right corner a year ago and led the team with two interceptions while making 42 stops and breaking up five passes. Rice totaled 61 tackles while starting eight games on the left side in 2007, and Pruitt will spend 2008 as a full-time corner after splitting time between safety and corner last season. He finished second on the Huskie team with 92 stops.
"Corner is probably the position I feel the best about," Kill said. "If we are healthy, Carter, Rice and Pruitt give us the best depth of any position; Patrick George really had a great spring and has a chance to be a big-time player."
Where the Huskie corners boast 48 career starts, the top four safeties on NIU's depth chart own exactly one. Sophomores Mike Sobol and Justin Stewart are relative newcomers at strong and free safety, respectively, as Sobol has not yet played a down for the Huskies and Stewart saw action primarily on special teams a year ago. They are backed by junior Spencer Williamson, owner of that lone start, and redshirt freshman Tracy Wilson.
Arguably the biggest shoes to fill in the Huskie line-up belonged to former kicker Chris Nendick, a four-year starter who graduated as one of the top scorers in NIU and MAC history. Entering 2008, that role falls to former transfer Mike Salerno, who came to Northern Illinois a year ago from Winona State. He will be challenged by fellow walk-on Steve Ivanisevic, a newcomer to the program this season from Joliet Junior College.
The punting position is ably manned by senior Andy Dittbenner. He set the NIU single season record for punting average in 2007 with a 43.5-yard mark. Dittbenner booted a career-long 62-yard punt versus Kent State in 2007 and had 16 of his efforts downed inside the 20-yard line.
Nolan Owen handles the long-snapping duties for the Huskies while the punt and kick return spots will be contested during preseason practices.
Northern Illinois will play four of its first five games of 2008 on the road, beginning with the season opener versus Minnesota in Minneapolis on August 30. NIU will open the year versus a Big Ten opponent for the fourth straight season before settling into Mid-American Conference play Sept. 6 with a key intra-divisional game at Western Michigan. Following an early off week, the Huskies meet Indiana State Sept. 20 in the 2008 home opener.
Back-to-back road trips to Eastern Michigan (Sept. 27) and Tennessee (Oct. 4) follow with Northern Illinois making its first visit to Knoxville to play in front of what is sure to be one of the largest crowds in school history.
A three-game MAC homestand ensues with NIU taking on Miami (Ohio), Toledo and Bowling Green on consecutive Saturdays beginning Oct. 11, highlighted by the homecoming contest versus MAC West foe Toledo.
NIU will play four weekday contests in November with three of those games scheduled for airing on one of the ESPN networks. After traveling to Ball State for the first official rivalry game for "The Bronze Stalk" on Weds., Nov. 5, the Huskies will play host to Central Michigan in an ESPN2/ESPN360 game Nov. 12. Northern Illinois will close out its road schedule Tues., Nov. 18 at Kent State and plays its final regular season contest of 2008 Nov. 25 when Navy visits DeKalb for the first time. That game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
Northern Illinois Football Outlook - Part II
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