DEKALB -- Within five minutes of slipping inside the gates Thursday afternoon at Huskie Stadium, the time of year became abundantly clear.
"Good job being violent!" yelled an appreciative Northern Illinois assistant coach.
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Then, a few minutes later ...
"Go again!" yelled another NIU assistant, picking on a tentative trio of freshmen. "That makes me puke!"
For nearly 2½ hours, the defending MAC West champs sweated through their first official practice in jerseys and shorts.
"I thought they had really good energy coming out," said first-year head coach Dave Doeren. "They're definitely excited to be playing again."
If all goes right this fall, the Huskies will spend the night of Dec. 2 in Detroit celebrating their first MAC title since 1983.
The nation's coaches seem to believe that's NIU's destiny.
In the USA Today preseason coaches' poll released Thursday, the Huskies shared 44th place with 4 points. No other MAC school received a vote.
"It's nice to get respect from anybody and we appreciate anything that people will do or say about us," Doeren said. "But the end of the day, it's more where we end up than where we start."
NIU, which set a school record with 11 wins last season, gets a head start on the rest of the MAC by retaining eight starters from an offense that averaged 38 points per game.
Doeren has entrusted NIU's attack to offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who served in the same post under Joe Novak in 2003.
Doeren learned to appreciate Canada over the last five years when Canada's wide-open offenses at Indiana matched wits with Doeren's Wisconsin defenses.
"I really thought he had very little talent (relative to the rest of the Big Ten) and did a lot with it," Doeren said. "I always respected him because he was always tough to defend. You weren't always scared of his players, but you knew you had to be 'on' systematically or he could expose you with some things."
Now, relative to the rest of the MAC, Canada boasts nuclear capabilities.
Senior quarterback Chandler Harnish, who ranked 11th nationally in passer efficiency last year while adding 836 rushing yards, returns along with an intact offensive line.
Senior center Scott Wedige and senior left tackle Trevor Olson made the preseason Lombardi Award watch list while senior right guard Joe Pawlak gives NIU a third returning all-MAC lineman.
"It's awesome," Canada said. "You've got great players, great talent. You've got a great receiving corps. I think we've got a very good stable of running backs. Our tight ends are senior-driven."
NIU's receivers group features four proven pass-catchers. That doesn't include markedly improved sophomore Anthony Johnson and redshirt freshman Da'Ron Brown and three true freshmen who made their presence known Thursday.
"Competition brings out the best," Canada said. "And right now you've got a bunch of good players who want to play and they want the ball.
"But there's only one ball and there's only so many plays in a game. That's why you've got a chance to become really, really special -- because of all the talent that you have and the things you can do with them."