Hammock feels NIU had strong offseason, despite disruption
Former Northern Illinois running back and longtime NFL assistant Thomas Hammock returned to his alma mater last year as head coach, but the early results were disappointing.
NIU had some good wins but finished 5-7 in Hammock's initial season. It was the program's second losing record in the past 11 years.
The Huskies got two spring practices in before school and sports were canceled during spring break due to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic.
Hammock spoke to the Daily Herald about how he and the coaching staff are coping with the loss of spring practice, staying in touch with players and making plans for better results this fall.
Q: Obviously, every team is in the same boat, but how much will you miss not finishing spring practice?
A: We actually planned our whole offseason around football development. We took time out of what would normally be considered winter conditioning and really worked on football skills, things that we thought would help us during the season. So when we got to spring practice, we didn't have to spend as much time working on fundamentals and drills, we could work more schemes. To be honest, I really think that gave us a chance to be ahead of the curve in our football development.
Q: How are you staying in touch with your players during the time off?
A: We have been using a variety of electronic tools to stay in touch with our players -- have meetings, keep up on academics. Obviously with cellphones and FaceTime, I think that face-to-face interaction is important for us to have a chance to touch our kids on a regular basis, to keep some level of normalcy, some level of routine that they're used to being in.
Q: What's your take on last season? NIU had some nice wins and a tough schedule, but surely the final record had to be a disappointment.
A: We didn't play as consistent as we needed to play to be the type of team we wanted to be. But I think part of that is first year with the team, you're getting used to players. They have to get adjusted to your expectations, your culture, the week-to-week grind of getting yourself mentally and physically prepared to play every week.
What I've seen is in Year 2, we've got some guys that have really stepped up and taken leadership roles within our team that I didn't necessarily see last season. I'm excited about the guys that we have. We've got a few guys that are sixth-year seniors (QB Ross Bowers, TE Daniel Crawford, C Christopher Perez, LB Kyle Pugh), which is quite unique. Those guys will provide the foundation we need to make sure we can play the type of consistent football we need to play.
Q: Bowers, a grad transfer from California, is back for another year. Former starter Marcus Childers and backup Anthony Thompson left the program. Is it safe to say Bowers will be your starting quarterback in the fall?
A: You figure Year 2 in our program, another year in the offense, he has an opportunity to make a big jump. We took a grad transfer midyear, Andrew Haidet from Houston Baptist. We signed a big-time player out of Michigan, Dustin Fletcher, who graduated early and was here this spring, as well as Mariano Valenti, a kid who redshirted last year.
We feel right now Ross has probably been head and shoulders above, in terms of knowledge of the position, techniques of the positions and being able to deliver the ball like we need the quarterbacks to deliver the ball.
Q: What positions would have had the most competition in the spring? What are areas of strength?
A: Defense and the cornerback position, those were two spots with the most competitions. With the guys we had coming in (at semester break) and the guys we had coming back, it was going to create a certain level of competition.
I definitely think our defensive line is going to be an area of strength with Jack Heflin, Weston Kramer (Marmion Academy). Demond Taylor is a redshirt freshman that could have played; James Ester, Matt Lorbeck at the defensive end position. We really feel good about the strength of our D-line as well as our linebackers.
We've got Kyle Pugh coming back, Lance Deveaux coming back, Jordan Cole, who made a lot of splash plays for us last season. So the front seven of our defense we feel like is a legitimate strength of our team and we have to gear everything toward allowing those guys to make plays.