Northern Illinois found itself in unfamiliar territory last season as the Huskies finished 5-7 and didn’t go to a bowl game for the first time since 2008. Injuries, especially at the quarterback position, have been an issue for Rod Carey’s team in recent seasons but right now he’s not even sure who will be his starter for the opener against Boston College. Elsewhere, a new No. 1 receiver needs to emerge and a defense that had its issues last season will feature plenty of new starters in the front seven. Besides the aforementioned Eagles, Northern Illinois also has road games against Nebraska and San Diego State so a return to the postseason may hinge on if the Huskies can at least match 2016’s 5-3 mark in MAC play.
Previewing Northern Illinois Football’s Offense for 2017
For the second consecutive season, the Huskies were ravaged by injuries at quarterback. Over the last two years, a total of 26 games, Northern Illinois has started five different quarterbacks, including four last season.
Season-ending injuries have become a theme for NIU after years of stability at the position, leading to only 13 wins over the last two seasons. Doubt continues to hang over the position entering the fall, as the competition is wide open, with junior Ryan Graham and sophomore Daniel Santacaterina, two suburban Chicago products from high-profile programs, as the leading candidates. Both are capable but lack big-play prowess or possess a tangible trait of strength that sticks out.
The Huskies lost reliable back Joel Bouagnon, but Jordan Huff and Marcus Jones have the potential to be a formidable pair, combining with Tommy Mister to form a quality backfield.
The biggest hole on the offense is the graduation of all-conference wide receiver Kenny Golladay. Christian Blake (34 catches, 457 yards) is the only returnee among the wideouts who had more than nine catches last season.
Three starters return from an offensive line that tied with Troy for the least amount of sacks (eight) allowed in the nation last season. Junior tackle Max Scharping and guard Jordan Steckler headline a strong and talented left side.
Previewing Northern Illinois Football’s Defense for 2017
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Opponents padded their offensive stats against the Huskies last season, particularly in the first half of the season before the defense righted itself with a better showing in the final five games. The front four is under massive construction, once again, as tackle William Lee is the lone returning starter. Last year, the Huskies ranked No. 88 in rushing defense (200.8 ypg) and No. 98 in total defense (451.5 ypg).
The linebackers are nearly an entirely new cast, although Jawuan Johnson, Kyle Pugh and Bobby Jones IV have experience on their sides.
The good news is that the secondary is talented, full of experience and chock-full of depth. Senior cornerback Shawun Lurry, a FWAA first-team All-American as a sophomore, might have to battle for playing time with Albert Smalls returning from an injury and former Iowa Hawkeye Jalen Embry finally eligible.
Previewing Northern Illinois Football’s Specialists for 2017
Placekicker Christian Hagan is the lone specialist with significant experience, but after a slight drop-off in accuracy, he must elevate his game. Senior punter Josh Orne, also a kickoff specialist, owns one of the more unique stat lines — he has three career tackles but not a single punt in the last three years. Huff inherits the tough task of replacing all-conference kick returner Aregeros Turner. Chad Beebe is slated to take over at punt returner.
Rod Carey enters a pivotal year, as some of the luster of NIU’s BCS Orange Bowl berth is starting to wear off after the Huskies’ school-record run of eight straight bowl appearances came to a disappointing end with a 5–7 record. Even though a third straight season with a series of injuries at the quarterback position is unlikely, the in-house candidates lack the star power or dual-threat ability of past signal callers.
Overall, the defense should be improved, especially the front four, but with the lingering issues on offense, the Huskies could be in store for a difficult season battling a non-conference schedule that features Boston College, Nebraska and San Diego State to go with league road games at Toledo and Central Michigan.
On the positive side, if the Huskies can finish 5–3 in the conference utilizing three different starters at quarterback — like they did last season — anything is possible.
National Ranking: 99
MAC West Prediction: 3
(Jordan Huff photo courtesy of Scott Walstrom/NIU Photography)