Huskies Open Spring Football Practice

DeKALB, Ill. - Less than three months after its 2008 season ended at the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., Northern Illinois returned to the practice field Tuesday as 2009 spring practices began in DeKalb. Eighty-four Huskies took the field at Huskie Stadium early Tuesday morning as Head Coach Jerry Kill begins his second season at NIU.

Kill admits that he feels much better about his team entering spring practice in 2009 than he did a year ago. Unlike last season, he has already seen the majority of his players in action in an NIU uniform (five newcomers have joined the team since January). And, while 20-plus players sat out last year's spring drills while recovering from surgery, just one student-athlete (LB Kevin Sabock) is on the shelf this spring.

"I feel better about our team than I did going into spring a year ago," Kill said. "Last year, we started out with [more than 20] players out [for spring] and we only had one person have a major surgery this offseason. That's the biggest difference, we get to go through spring with the kids that have the opportunity to play next year, which is really going to help our team. Plus we had the extra bowl practices, so to me this is like a second spring ball."

Northern Illinois returns 13 starters with seven on offense, four on defense and specialists Mike Salerno (K) and Nolan Owen (DS). Offensively, the Huskies have experience returning at nearly every position, but will be looking for new starters to emerge at right tackle and right guard to replace Jon Brost and Dan Keller, respectively. NIU also lost five senior receivers, including Matt Simon, Marcus Perez and Britt Davis. However, junior Landon Cox started eight games and both Nathan Palmer and Willie Clark saw extensive playing time as redshirt freshmen.

Kill broke down the offensive opportunities.

"Certainly we have a right tackle position where there will be competition, and also the right guard position is open," he said. "At tailback, we need to have somebody step up. Sooner or later, someone has to step up so we can have a [Garrett] Wolfe, a [A.J.] Harris, some consistency there.

"At wide receiver, we'll miss our seniors, but we have a starter returning there in Landon Cox. People forget about him, but he did a nice job for us, and we've also got Nate Palmer and Willie Clark back. We'll get a chance to see what players like Tommy Davis, Ron Walker and Preston Williams can do."

On defense, Northern Illinois lost a host of seniors to graduation including two-time Vern Smith Award recipient Larry English, the 2008 MAC Defensive Player of the Year. However, last year's philosophy of rolling in new players at linebacker and defensive line every few plays leaves the Huskies with experience returning at those key positions.

At linebacker, Alex Kube, Pat Schiller and Cory Hanson, as well as John Tranchitella, have "played a ton of football for us" Kill says. In addition, former safeties Spencer Williamson and David Pratt have been moved to linebacker and redshirt freshman Victor Jacques will also work out at the position.

"Defensively, we need to add depth at linebacker," Kill said. "On the other hand, we feel like we have a lot of depth in the defensive line. That should be a war zone for competition, because we have a lot of good players in the d-line."

While English and fellow senior starters Craig Rusch and Alex Krutsch must be replaced, interior linemen Mike Krause, D.J. Pirkle and Adam Coleman, as well as defensive ends Brandon Bice, Jake Coffman and Mike Kritikos, are back. They will be joined by redshirts Sean Progar-Jackson and Brian Lawson, and junior college signee Kyle Jenkins.

With David Bryant, an all-star candidate at free safety, as well as Tracy Wilson, Mike Sobol and redshirt Jody Van Laanen, Kill says safety is similar to linebacker where there is experience but limited depth. The battle at cornerback, meanwhile, could be the key to the 2009 defense.

"There's a big question mark, and should be a lot of competition, out at corner," Kill said. "We lost a lot there. Kiaree Daniels and Patrick George return with playing experience; we need to see [junior college transfer] Chris Smith step up. It will be important for him to come in and help us out. Our development at that position is going to be critical to our defense this season."

All-conference kicker Mike Salerno returns for the Huskies, but NIU must replace four-year punter Andy Dittbenner. Junior college signee Josh Wilber arrived on campus in January and will compete with redshirt freshman Ryan Neir. Northern Illinois must also find a new holder.

With full participation and a year spent coaching the Huskies behind him, Kill and his staff have definite goals for the 15 workouts.

"What we've tried to do is identify the things that we didn't do well last year offensively, defensively and in the kicking game," Kill said. "Our emphasis this spring will be to improve those areas, and also to find out who are the guys that can play and contribute next year. You always look forward to spring to build on what you did last year, and also look for players who maybe did not contribute a year ago to see if they have improved themselves and are ready to make the transition to the field."

The Huskies are scheduled to practice three times a week for the next five weeks as they will practice on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and either Friday night or Saturday morning. The Friday practices will be on March 27 and April 17 beginning at 6:50 p.m., while Saturday workouts will be held April 4 and April 11 and begin at 9:50 a.m. Spring drills will conclude Saturday, April 25 with several events scheduled around the final practice, which will begin at 1 p.m. at Huskie Stadium. Practice dates and times are subject to change. All practices are open to the public.

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