The Northern Illinois Huskies are back for more. After winning their first MAC championship since 2014, and their fourth title overall, the Huskies are hoping to go back-to-back for just the second time in school history (won three straight from 1963-65 as a member of the former Interstate Intercollegiate Athletic Conference). But achieving that will be easier said than done.
For starters, the team is coming into 2019 with a new head coach. Rod Carey has taken his talents to Temple and in his place is Thomas Hammock. Hammock is a former NIU running back whose career was cut short due to a heart ailment. He stayed involved with the game by becoming an assistant coach. He started as NIU's running backs coach under the legendary Joe Novak and would go on to work for various college programs through the years.
His most recent job was as running backs coach for the Baltimore Ravens. Now Hammock has returned to DeKalb looking to put his stamp on the program, albeit with a few wrinkles. Hammock has stated that the quarterback job up for grabs and he's making adjustments to how NIU operates on both sides of the ball.
The Huskies also will be without a pair of All-Americans in pass-rushing monster Sutton Smith and offensive tackle Max Scharping, who were both selected in this year's NFL draft. But NIU still has plenty of talent on hand as Hammock looks to keep the Huskies among the top-tier teams in the MAC.
Here are some players that Hammock will lean on heavily as Northern Illinois defends both is MAC West Division and conference championships.
1. The starting quarterback
When Hammock was officially named the Huskies head coach in January, one of the first things he stated was that there would be an open competition for the starting job in 2019. Right now the battle is between redshirt junior Marcus Childers and California graduate transfer Ross Bowers. Childers has been the starter for the last two seasons and in that time he's posted 3,849 passing yards, 1,004 rushing yards while accounting for 37 total touchdowns. He's been arguably the most visible signal-caller for NIU since the Jordan Lynch era.
Occasional inconsistency, however, could be what puts Childers on the bench. He's thrown 15 career interceptions (10 in 2018), took 43 sacks last year alone, and he's only averaged 5.9 yards per pass attempt and three yards per carry. The Huskies at times haven't been as explosive with Childers under center. Bowers comes to DeKalb as a graduate transfer and he brings experience with him.
In three seasons with the Golden Bears, Bowers completed 59 percent of his passes for 3,095 yards, 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in 14 games played (13 starts). He hasn't been much of a threat as a rusher (-147 yards) but he does have three touchdowns on the ground.
Bowers is the more polished pocket passer while Childers is the established dual-threat option. Both players will be required to make adjustments under Hammock's watch as Childers needs to be more consistent and efficient, while Bowers will have to adjust to a new system and form chemistry with his new teammates. If there is one advantage that Bowers has it's the fact that he went up against Power 5 defenses regularly when he was at Cal.
Tre Harbison, RB
The junior is looking to be the next great Huskies tailback. And last year he put himself in prime position to do that as he ran for 1,034 yards and five touchdowns while averaging five yards per carry. Harbison should put up bigger numbers this year as Hammock could make running the ball the focal point of NIU's offense this year. Harbison is the second-leading returning rusher as the Huskies finished sixth in the MAC in rushing yards per game (166.9) last season.
Spencer Tears, WR
Heading into his senior year, Tears now finds himself as the most experienced receiver on the roster. Tears was the team's third-leading receiver last season with 40 receptions for 422 yards and four scores. But with Jauan Wesley and D.J. Brown no longer on campus, he has a chance to emerge as the No. 1 target in the Huskies' revamped passing game under Hammock.
Jack Heflin, Matt Lorbeck and Weston Kramer, DL
Sutton Smith's departure to the NFL leaves a big hole on the Northern Illinois defensive line but he's not only the pass rusher the Huskies have to replace. Josh Corcoran, whose 10 sacks were second in the MAC only to Smith's 15, also is trying to make it in the pros. Those two were responsible for half of NIU's 50 sacks last season, a total that only national champion Clemson (54) surpassed in 2018. It will be up to the trio of Heflin, Lorbeck, and Kramer, who combined for 12 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss last season, to fill a pair of pretty big shoes.
Antonio Jones-Davis and Kyle Pugh, LB
While Smith and Corcoran led the Huskies in sacks last year, the team's leading tacklers were Jones-Davis (130 tackles) and Pugh (106). The two seniors will not only anchor the middle of NIU's defense this season, they also will serve as the leaders for a unit that ranked near the top of the MAC in three of the four major categories in 2018 and was 11th nationally against the run (109.2 ypg). The Huskies offense is what brings attention to the program but it's the defense that will be the heart of the 2019 edition.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of Northern Illinois Athletics)