The Northern Illinois Huskies are stacked on defense, have quality depth at quarterback and host Ohio, Toledo and Miami (Ohio). Whether the Huskies can overcome the lumps -- and possible resulting injuries -- of playing a stacked schedule is the biggest concern in their quest to win a MAC West title.
Previewing Northern Illinois Football's Offense for 2018
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Part of the Huskies' recent three-year downward trend is based on an abundance of injuries at quarterback, including last year, when Ryan Graham suffered a season-ending elbow injury in the regular-season opener. Daniel Santacaterina started the next three games but was ineffective. Marcus Childers, the 2017 MAC Freshman of the Year, finally helped stabilize the offense with his running and steady passing. His ability not to force passes -- 16 touchdowns and five interceptions -- and his skill at running the ball (473 yards rushing) are hopeful signs for the future. Childers, though, has to take his game to the next level and play more aggressively.
All five starters on the offensive line return, led by two-time first-team All-MAC selection Max Scharping at left tackle. In all, eight starters return on an offense that averaged 28.9 points and 377.8 yards per game last season. Running backs Marcus Jones and Tre Harbison are set for bigger roles.
The wide receivers group is a bit of a concern, but Spencer Tears and D.J. Brown both exceeded 40 receptions last season. Brown had a solid spring and could be in store for big numbers. Senior Jauan Wesley might be the X-factor.
Tight end remains a tight battle following the graduation of All-MAC performer Shane Wimann.
Previewing Northern Illinois Football's Defense for 2018
The NIU defense was the most dominant unit last season in a conference known primarily for highlight-reel offenses. Despite upheaval at quarterback that led to spotty play on offense, the Huskies' defense performed at a high level on a weekly basis. Most of the starters return from a unit that ranked 26th nationally in total defense and tied for 32nd in scoring defense.
Defensive end Sutton Smith was a breakout star, registering 14 sacks among his 29.5 tackles for a loss to earn MAC Defensive Player of the Year and All-America honors. Smith, a junior, headlines a defense with six returning starters. The entire front four is back for a defense with high expectations in 2018.
Junior linebacker Kyle Pugh is healthy after playing only four games last season. Junior Antonio Jones-Davis is a possible all-conference selection at another linebacker spot.
Jalen Embry and Albert Smalls comprise one of the top corner duos in the conference, and junior safeties Mykelti Williams and Trayshon Foster are both set for big seasons.
Previewing Northern Illinois Football's Specialists for 2018
The Huskies welcome a new placekicker in Cincinnati transfer Andrew Gantz. Punter Matt Ference is back following an up-and-down freshman season in which he ranked 68th in the nation with a 41.2-yard average. Four players are vying for the open punt and kickoff return spots.
The Huskies have not won more than eight games in any of the last three seasons, and although the talent level, especially on defense, would indicate a possible 10-plus-win team, the schedule is a big obstacle. The good news is that the Huskies possess significant talent on both sides of the ball, enabling them to make a run at the West Division title.