Northern Illinois entered 2021 with low preseason expectations, but coach Thomas Hammock guided this team to a win over Georgia Tech in the season opener, a 9-5 overall mark and a MAC title. The Huskies won't sneak up on anyone in the MAC this year, but Hammock's squad returns the best all-around collection of talent in the conference. Steady quarterback Rocky Lombardi directs an offense also returning running backs Harrison Waylee and Antario Brown to headline a group that averaged 32.2 points a game last fall. NIU's defense surrendered 33.7 points a contest, but the bulk of this group (11 returning starters) returns for '22.
Previewing Northern Illinois' Offense for 2022
After transferring from Michigan State, Rocky Lombardi galvanized the NIU offense with his leadership, experience and steady play. The senior quarterback has had a dramatic impact on the program, passing for 2,597 yards and 15 touchdowns with just eight interceptions to lead the Huskies to the MAC title.
The Huskies have a wealth of talented quarterbacks, including redshirt freshman Ethan Hampton and Temple transfer Justin Lynch, the younger brother of former NIU star quarterback Jordan Lynch, who led the Huskies to the 2013 Orange Bowl.
Lombardi won't have the luxury of handing the ball off to Jay Ducker. The 2021 MAC Freshman of the Year transferred to Memphis in January. The ground game could get a spark from the sophomore trio of Harrison Waylee, Antario Brown and Mason Blakemore.
Northern Illinois head coach Thomas Hammock expects the offensive line to be one of the strengths of the team due to added depth — up to 10 quality players. Four starters are back, including the entire left side in tackle Marques Cox and guard J.J. Lippe.
Several talented options return at wide receiver, led by Trayvon Rudolph and Cole Tucker. Rudolph, who caught 14 passes for 309 yards and three TDs vs. Kent State, is a game-changer on offense and special teams.
Previewing Northern Illinois' Defense for 2022
The defense is set to take a big step this season, in particular up front. The 4-3 defense is led by returning defensive end Raishein Thomas and interior linemen Demond Taylor Jr. and James Ester. Physical toughness and strength was an issue that the coaching staff addressed in the offseason.
The linebacker spot will make a jump in athleticism, aided by the return of injured middle linebacker Kyle Pugh to go with Nick Rattin, Jaden Dolphin and Makhi Nelson-Douglas.
NIU is solid in the secondary with junior cornerback Jordan Gandy headlining a talented group that includes Eric Rogers and JaVaughn Byrd. At safety, Devin Lafayette, CJ Brown and Louis Frye are among the returnees.
Related: MAC Football 2022 Predictions
Previewing Northern Illinois' Specialists for 2022
Junior John Richardson is a clutch performer and one of the top kickers in the conference. The loss of punter Matt Ference is a blow, but Minnesota transfer Tom Foley is the most likely successor. Rudolph, a second-team all-conference player at kickoff returner and wide receiver, is an explosive threat. Tucker and FIU transfer Shemar Thornton are set to battle for punt return duties.
The Huskies are aiming for another magical season. That might happen again with a deeper and more balanced team. Lombardi headlines an experienced offense, and the Huskies are talented in the trenches. The schedule shapes up nicely for another push toward the end of the regular season, with three of NIU's final four games at home. If it can overcome the transfer of Ducker and get another breakout player on offense, NIU could be making another appearance in Detroit.
National Ranking: 76
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