Undersized Baxter a big key for NIU defense
MIAMI SHORES, Fla. -- When sports pundits railed against the notion of a BCS bowl bid going to Mid-American Conference champion Northern Illinois, senior defensive end Alan Baxter chose not to tune it out.
"We knew we were going to have a lot of criticism," Baxter said as the Huskies put the final touches on preparations for Tuesday night's Discover Orange Bowl date with Florida State in Miami's Sun Life Stadium. "We knew going in we would be the underdog.
"It was kind of expected. We just kind of used it as fuel for the team, the players. It's going to help get us going leading up to game day and game day."
Baxter, a senior from Buffalo Grove, has gotten used to being told what he can't do. He's heard over and over that, at an even 6-feet tall and carrying a playing weight of 245 pounds -- up by a Rosita's plate or two from the 240 on the pre-bowl roster -- he doesn't have the size to play defensive end.
"My whole career," he said with a smile when asked how long his size has been criticized. "I was told that in high school all the way through now, so I really go out there and try to prove a point, prove them wrong, what other people think. It's proven not to be true, so that's awesome."
Indeed, by any reasonable measure, Baxter can play defensive end.
He garnered first-team all-Mid-American Conference honors for 2012 after leading the Huskies in sacks (9.5) in the regular season, a total that is second in the league and 31st nationally. Of his 54 tackles, 11 have been for losses.
Over the last two seasons, in 23 starts, Baxter has 23.5 tackles for loss and 16 sacks among 96 tackles.
That's quality production for a defensive end on any level.
"The thing about Alan is that he is very high academically," defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen said of the finance major who garnered first-team Academic All-America honors this year as selected by college sports information directors. "He has one of the top GPAs on the team, so he uses his intelligence.
"When he studies the film, he really details what he is going to see, and he uses that something. He plays extremely hard. He's a very hard worker. And that combination makes up for his lack of size."
Coming out of Buffalo Grove High School, Baxter, who earned Northwest Suburban All-Area first-team honors as selected by the Daily Herald, wasn't highly recruited. A couple of MAC teams and some FCS schools were about it, he said.
"The big guys didn't think I could play defensive end like I have," he said.
After signing with Northern Illinois, Baxter saw valuable time his first two years for the Huskies. Though he didn't record a start, he played in all 13 games as a true freshman in 2009, recording his first collegiate sack and 22 tackles.
As a sophomore in 2010, he played as a backup end in 12 of NIU's 14 games and tied for eighth on the team in tackles-for-loss with 4.5. He was credited with half-a-sack in the MAC championship game against Miami-Ohio.
"I was playing behind a bunch of great people like Jake Coffman and Brandon Bice, so I really learned from them," Baxter said. "When it was my time to shine, I took advantage of it."
Baxter started 10 games and tied for the team lead in sacks (5.5) and tackles for loss (12.5) as a junior as the NIU defense grew up over the second half of the 2011 season, capping the year with a 23-20 win over Ohio in the MAC title game.
When fall camp opened for the 2012 campaign, Baxter showed up with a sharp focus.
"Senior year, it's his last go-round," said Nielsen, his position coach. "For all the seniors, it's your last go-round and you're more focused and you're more detailed, you're more determined.
"I think that was the case with Alan. He came back and he was ready to go. He had a great summer program. He worked hard. Once we started camp, he was a difference maker from Day One."
Baxter was confident it would happen.
"I always knew that I would be able to be up there on the depth chart," Baxter said. "It was just a matter of waiting my turn."
His speed and his strength -- and effort -- have been the keys to his success.
"He's been pretty consistent through the entire season," Nielsen said. "He had a sack the first game, he had two sacks the next game, or one sack and then he had two sacks.
"So he's played very consistently throughout the year. That's hard to do over a 13-, 14-game season. Every game he's produced."
As Baxter has progressed, so, too, has the defense overall. The Huskies this season finished second in the MAC in scoring defense, giving up 19 points a game; second in total defense (356.7 yards per game), and second against the run (139 yard per game), pretty good numbers that are often overlooked because of the team's offensive prowess.
One of the big keys is the overall experience on the unit. Baxter is one of three seniors who will start up front for the Huskies when they take on the Seminoles, joining fellow end Sean Progar and tackle Nabal Jefferson.
The other starter at tackle will either be Anthony Wells or Ken Bishop, both juniors.
It's a group that will face a big challenge in facing a Florida State offense that has size and speed in great quantity. Baxter, for instance, will be going against offensive linemen weighing more than 300 pounds in trying to get to a quarterback, E.J. Manuel, who at 6-5, 238, virtually matches him in size.
But, again, that's nothing new.
"It's common," Baxter said of taking on players who match his heft. "There are a lot of big guys out there. We play against a lot of big people."
As Mark Twain once said (and repeated by, among others, two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin), "It's not the size of the dog in the fight. It's the size of the fight in the dog."
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