Northern's young offense backed by veteran defense
Here's an easy way to explain the state of Northern Illinois as it sets out to defend its Mid-American Conference football championship:
The Huskies return everyone on defense and practically no one on offense.
On the surface, that reality seems to suggest a rebuilding project is at hand.
Record-setting quarterback Chandler Harnish is now playing mop-up minutes for the Indianapolis Colts, and the lone returnee from last season's veteran offensive line, Logan Pegram, is out indefinitely with a broken leg.
Keep in mind, though, that the opposite was true last season — the offense had experience and most of the defense was new.
NIU gave up an average of 40 points in its first five games and survived a mind-numbing 63-60 victory at Toledo on Nov. 1 but finished the season with a nine-game winning streak, longest in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Maybe they'll have to win some 10-7 games early this season, but the Huskies are not ready to concede the MAC West title they've won the last two seasons.
They open the season against Iowa at Soldier Field on Sept. 1.
"We have to re-prove ourselves," said second-year coach Dave Doeren when NIU opened summer practice. "Saying that you're the defending MAC champs is an honor, and we're excited to be in that position.
"We know that with that position comes the best shot we can get from every team we play. We won't sneak up on people; we realize that. I'd much rather be a defending champ than be at the bottom of the ladder looking up."
On defense, the Huskies lost leading tackler Pat Schiller (Geneva), but most everyone else is back, including sack leaders Alan Baxter (Buffalo Grove) and Sean Progar (Loyola Academy) on the defensive line; and decorated defensive backs Rashaan Melvin (Waukegan) and Jimmie Ward.
At linebacker, Doeren is counting on senior Tyrone Clark, the team's defensive MVP in 2010 who missed all of last season.
The Huskies believe they have a good candidate to lead an inexperienced offense in junior Jordan Lynch. He's said to be faster than Harnish, who ran for 1,300 yards last season, and Lynch completed 15 of 20 passes during spot action last season.
"We have a quarterback that will equal the playing field at times because of his running ability," Doeren said. "We may not have to block things perfectly every time."
Blocking might be the biggest concern, since the four graduated seniors were all multiyear starters. One candidate to start at tackle is former walk-on Ryan Brown (St. Charles North).
One spot where the Huskies have some proven talent is wide receiver, with Martel Moore (47 catches, 747 yards) and Perez Ashford (47 for 530) return. Moore piled up 224 receiving yards in the bowl victory over Arkansas State.
Running back was supposed to be a three-man race between juniors Akeem Daniels and Leighton Settle, and senior Jamal Womble.
But NIU found a surprising star during Saturday's scrimmage in 5-foot-8 true freshman Keith Harris Jr. from Leo High School. He scored three times, including a 65-yard run.
"I had no idea that would happen," Doeren said. "He (Harris) took advantage of an opportunity. I wasn't happy with what I was seeing from the tailbacks, so we put him in there and he responded. We'll have to see what happens going forward."
Special teams might also bring scoring potential. Sophomore Tommyleee Lewis returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in that Toledo shootout.
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