The Northern Illinois Huskies went 5-7 last season, coming just one win shy of a potential third consecutive bowl game appearance. For 2020, the Huskies have their eyes on not only a return to the postseason but also their first Mid-American Conference championship since 2018. This is, of course, providing the Mid American Conference is able to play this year in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. To get there, they'll have to lean on the experience of their returning players from last season.
With Thomas Hammock entering his second season as NIU's head coach, the hope is that the familiarity between coaching staff and the players will produce even better on-field results. Here are five players that the Huskies will absolutely be counting on this fall.
Ross Bowers, QB
Even while splitting time with Marcus Childers last year, Bowers threw for 2,130 yards and seven touchdowns. He completed 57.8 percent of his passes, averaged 7.4 yards per attempt, and had a 122.7 passer rating. But unlike Childers and other Huskie signal-callers of recent seasons, Bowers isn't exactly known for using his feet (-258 career rushing yards, 54 sacks taken). Bowers certainly possesses enough arm talent, but most of the groundwork this year will be handled by running back Jordan Nettles (489 career rushing yards, 3.9 ypc). Running the ball is the foundation of NIU's offense, but Bowers' efforts will be just as important.
Cole Tucker, WR
Tucker led the Huskies in receptions (38), receiving yards (531), and yards per catch (14.0) last season. Even though he only scored one touchdown, Tucker was Northern Illinois' top downfield target. But he won't be alone, as Tyrice Richie, Dennis Robinson, and Daniel Crawford are other options for Bowers in the passing game. Those three combined to record 77 catches for 924 yards and six touchdowns in 2019. Tucker will lead the way, but the Huskies will be very dangerous when throwing the ball during the 2020 campaign.
Daniel Crawford, TE
With Mitchell Brinkman no longer part of the team, Crawford is the Huskies' top tight end. He's acutally done quite well for himself in his previous reserve role. When coming off the bench, Crawford has made 44 catches for 508 yards and two touchdowns. He's averaged 11.5 yards per reception, has 17 games of experience under his belt, and has the blocking game down pact. Look for Crawford to add to those numbers this season.
Weston Kramer, DL
Like Crawford, Kramer now has his chance to emerge as a star. This holds especially true since Jack Heflin and Matt Lorbeck are no longer on the NIU front four. And like Crawford, Kramer has made the most of his prior snaps. The 280-pound defensive tackle has registered 78 tackles, nine tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks in 32 career games. His skillset will be especially valuable against the fast-paced offenses that Northern Illinois will face in conference play.
Kyle Pugh, LB
Injuries limited Pugh to just two games last year, and he also played through pain in 2018. But when healthy, he is a driving force of this defense that's credited with 150 tackles and nine tackles for a loss as Huskie. If he can stay on the field in 2020, NIU will be better on defense, which could be the missing piece to getting back to the postseason.
— 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)