Northern Illinois welcomes back nine starters on defense as Huskies seek third straight MAC title game appearance.
By: Athlon Sports | 5/4/12, 3:41 PM EDT
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#85 Northern Illinois
MAC West PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Dave Doeren, 11-3 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Dunbar | DEF. COORDINATOR: Ryan Nielsen, Jay Niemann
The Huskies were one of the best offensive units in the country the last few years under quarterback Chandler Harnish. The potent attack helped mask a weakness on the defensive side as Northern Illinois pummeled teams en route to finishing the 2011 season with nine straight wins and averaging 38.3 points. New offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar brings a wealth of experience that will ease the loss of Harnish.
Junior quarterback Jordan Lynch was declared the starter before the start of spring practice. Lynch isn’t expected to put up Harnish-like numbers, but he must move the chains, limit turnovers and become a more vocal leader.
The Huskies have big question marks along the offensive line and at running back. Left guard Logan Pegram is the lone returning starter on the line. Junior running back Akeem Daniels is the most experienced in a corps of tailbacks that lacks a proven playmaker. Last year, Daniels rushed for 303 yards on 56 carries and scored three touchdowns.
Lynch does have the luxury of a stable of talented pass-catchers, led by Martel Moore, Perez Ashford, Tommylee Lewis, and several athletic tight ends. Moore and Ashford tied for the team lead with 47 receptions last season.
Nine starters return from a unit that got better late in the season after a horrific first few games.
The secondary is deep and experienced after gaining confidence with a solid showing late last season. The quintet of defensive backs Jimmie Ward, Rashaan Melvin, Jhony Faustin, Dechane Durante and Demetrius Stone broke up 27 passes and accounted for 10 of NIU’s 13 interceptions last year.
The return of linebackers Tyrone Clark (suspension) and Devon Butler (injury) after sitting out last year will bolster the defense. Butler, who is back from a shooting incident in which he was an innocent bystander, had 80 tackles in 2010.
The defensive line is thin and might be a problem all season. Defensive ends Alan Baxter and Sean Progar anchor a group filled with inexperienced players.
Lewis showcased his playmaking abilities with consecutive kickoff returns for touchdowns last year at Toledo. He is a dynamic player and will get more opportunities. Junior kicker Mathew Sims is following in NIU’s long line of successful kickers after hitting a pair of game-winning field goals last year, including one in the MAC Championship Game against Ohio.
Northern Illinois coach Dave Doeren didn’t need a spring practice to notice the difference between last year’s offense-dominated team and the 2012 edition.
“This team is really a flip of last year’s team,” he says.
The Huskies return only three starters from an offense that scored 40 points or more in nine games. Lynch’s progress hinges on the development and chemistry of a revamped offensive line and unproven group of running backs. The defense allowed 30.3 points and 415.2 yards per game last year but should help the offense during an early transition period. The defense is filled with enough talent and depth to carry the team, but it must force turnovers at a higher rate than the last few years.
A favorable schedule that includes four of the first five games at home (including the season-opener against Iowa at Soldier Field) and does not include any of the contenders in the MAC East should help the Huskies’ quest for a third straight trip to the MAC title game.