Northern Illinois is coming off what was — by the Huskies’ standards — a down year. Northern Illinois still went 8-6 and reached the MAC title game. But this is a program that had won at least 11 games in five consecutive seasons. By no means is the program on the decline. The Huskies will still be in the mix and should have a potent offense. A seventh trip to the MAC championship game is attainable but no guarantee.
Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter:
Previewing Northern Illinois’ Offense for 2016
Northern Illinois averaged 31.1 points and 398.5 yards per game last season despite injuries at quarterback that threw the offense into complete chaos. Injuries to starter Drew Hare, backup Anthony Maddie and redshirt freshman Ryan Graham forced true freshman walk-on Tommy Fiedler to start in the MAC title game.
Hare, who ruptured his right Achilles late last season, is expected to be healthy in the fall and will lead a potentially explosive offense. Hare played limited snaps in the spring, but the good news about last season’s injury woes is that depth and experience will not be issues at quarterback. Running back is the deepest position on offense, with everyone back from last season, most notably Joel Bouagnon, who rushed for 1,269 yards in 2015. Keep an eye on Indiana transfer Tommy Mister.
The offensive line lost two key four-year starters in Aidan Conlon and Andrew Ness, but left tackle Levon Myers is one of three returning starters. Many NIU coaches are calling sophomore Max Scharping one of the program’s most talented offensive linemen in years.
Wide receiver talent is plentiful, with Kenny Golladay and Aregeros Turner two of the best in the conference.
Previewing Northern Illinois’ Defense for 2016
, which includes an in-depth look at all 128 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
Coach Rod Carey entered conference play expecting his highly ranked defense to dominate. In consecutive road games last season, the Huskies limited then-No.1 Ohio State to 20 points and forced six three-and-out possessions against Boston College.
Injuries were a big reason for NIU’s late-season fade, though, as the Huskies gave up 41 points to Ball State, 30 to Buffalo and 55 points in a loss to Boise State in the Poinsettia Bowl. One bright spot was the play of FWAA First-Team All-America cornerback Shawun Lurry, who led the nation with nine interceptions. Lurry, a junior, had two interceptions at Ohio State and tallied 273 interception return yards for the season.
The front four is experienced, though it lacks big-play talent, especially at defensive end. Senior defensive ends Ladell Fleming and Austin Smaha are experienced, and defensive tackles Mario Jones and William Lee played key roles last season. Look for converted linebacker Josh Corcoran to be an impact player at defensive end.
Senior linebackers Jamaal Payton and Sean Folliard headline the middle of NIU’s defense, with promising sophomore Renard Cheren expected to be a solid performer at outside linebacker.
Previewing Northern Illinois’ Specialists for 2016
Placekicker Christian Hagan connected on 14-of-18 field goal attempts last season. Punter Jake Ambrose, a California native, must improve on his punt attempts in colder weather, according to Carey. Turner is one of the top kick returners in the country.
The Huskies have advanced to six straight MAC title games and played in eight consecutive bowl games. Northern Illinois, though, has lost three bowl games in a row and six of its last eight. Motivation is high to record 10-plus wins, capture a MAC championship and end the bowl skid, Carey says.
Depth at quarterback, running back and defensive line is encouraging following an injury-marred 2015 season. The offense is potent with a healthy Hare back, while the linebacking corps is athletic and could be a hidden strength on the team. The secondary, with Lurry headlining the back four, can be a strength or weakness depending on whether some newcomers, such as Embry, can adapt to increased roles and expectations.
The Huskies have the talent, motivation and favorable schedule to add to their record-breaking West Division title streak.