State college football preview: NIU expects to challenge for another MAC title

Coach Thomas Hammock's rebuild at Northern Illinois moved faster than anyone expected.

The Huskies won the MAC title in Hammock's third season on the job, so now there's a ton of talent back to defend the conference crown.

"The great thing is, we're still a young football team," Hammock said this week. "We have a young, experienced team, which I think is good for the long-term future of our program."

According to the school, NIU has 21 starters back and five lost. That adds up to more than 22, but includes some former starters who missed time due to injury, along with some different lineup groups.

No one in college football brings more experience than linebacker Kyle Pugh. There have been plenty of jokes over the years about schools fielding eighth-year seniors. Pugh, a Chicago Heights native, actually is one. He missed all of '21 and most of '17 and '19 with injuries, and had his COVID year to make up. Pugh was also an All-MAC performer in 2018 and '20.

On this week's depth chart, Pugh is listed ahead of Fremd graduate Nick Rattin, a former walk-on who was named a team captain for the second-straight year. Two local players are vying for the new hybrid "Husky" position - Maine West's Jaden Dolphin and Hersey's Jake Hansen.

On offense, quarterback Rocky Lombardi and top receiver Trayvon Rudolph return, along with four starters on the offensive line. Sophomore RB Harrison Waylee ran for 144 yards against Georgia Tech and 179 against Wyoming before an injury ended his season early. Hersey grad Kacper Rutkiewicz adds to the receiver depth as a transfer from Illinois State.

"We had one of the better training camps I've ever been around," Hammock said. "We have the flexibility to be in a lot of different formations and try to feature what guys do well. I think that makes us more dynamic as an offense."

The Huskies open the season at home Thursday against Eastern Illinois. The nonconference schedule features two SEC teams, with Vanderbilt visiting DeKalb on Sept. 17, followed by a trip to Kentucky a week later.

Around the state

Eastern Illinois

First game: Thursday at Northern Illinois

Adam Cushing headed to Charleston from Northwestern with high expectations, but resigned after going 3-26 over three seasons and is now offensive line coach at Duke.

EIU's new coach is Chris Wilkerson, who played at the school from 1991-94 and began his coaching career under Bob Spoo. More recently, he was head coach at University of Chicago from 2013-21. Bartlett grad Jonah O'Brien, a Colorado State transfer, is a candidate to start at quarterback.

Western Illinois

First game: Thursday at Tenn-Martin

WIU also has a new head coach who played at the school. Myers Hendrickson was a wide receiver for the Leathernecks from 2009-11, while his father Mark was the head coach. Myers was head coach at Kansas Wesleyan the past three years.

WIU went 2-9 last season while giving up at least 30 points in every game. Former Warren LB Juan De La Cruz was the second-leading tackler last fall.

Southern Illinois

First game: Saturday at Incarnate Word

Head coach Nick Hill has turned things around, with the Salukis winning playoff games in each of the past two seasons. SIU is ranked No. 9 in the preseason FCS poll, but trying to climb higher in the tough Missouri Valley Conference, where North Dakota State and South Dakota State are ranked 1-2 in the country preseason, is a challenge.

The Salukis have 13 starters back, while 22 transfers from FCS programs are on the roster.

Illinois State

First game: Saturday at Wisconsin

The Redbirds are looking to bounce back from the two worst seasons in Brock Spack's 13 years as head coach. ISU finished 4-7 last fall after ending their pandemic spring season early.

Illinois State brings back 17 starters, while Minnesota transfer Zack Annexstad is expected to step in at quarterback.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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Northern Illinois head coach Thomas Hammock holds the championship trophy after the Mid-American Conference championship NCAA college football game against Kent State, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Detroit. Associated Press
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