The Huskies find themselves at a crossroads in the Jerry Kill era. The third-year coach guided the Huskies to consecutive bowl games and signature moments, including a road victory against Purdue in 2009.
The Huskies nearly beat several quality opponents and in Larry Davis had the program's first-ever player drafted in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft. Yet, under Kill, the Huskies remain 0-11 against teams with winning records, including two straight bowl losses. The program has failed to fully capitalize on a new end zone building in 2007, not attracting upper-tier recruits. In fact, the Huskies lost three key recruits to BCS schools at the last minute.
Also, the program suffered key losses when defensive end Jake Coffman, who led the team with 8.5 sacks, elected not to return for his senior year. Tailback Me'co Brown, a key player on special teams, decided to leave the program.
The upbeat Kill remains confident the Huskies -- 13-13 during his tenure -- will rebound with another strong season.
"We did lose some kids, no question about that, some very good players," Kill said. "But at the same time, we've had some in the program that are growing up. This is the best I've felt since I've been here."
The lingering questions following spring practice center on the quarterback position, special teams, offensive line and finding playmakers on offense and defense.
The Huskies might have numerous question marks, but there is still hope due to 48 lettermen returning, with 24 on offense and 22 on defense and two specialists.
"I think we have identified some personnel that we needed to see get better," Kill said. "Overall, I think we are ahead of where we were. ... I kind of go back to South Florida (in the International Bowl loss) and how we ended there and where we needed to go. We definitely haven't regressed; we're still moving forward with our program. I think the kids concentrated well all spring long. Now it comes down to how hard they are going to work in the summer. They have to do a lot of things on their own to really get better."
Who will start at quarterback is a slight concern. Junior two-year starter Chandler Harnish is set to take the next step in his development after the experience of playing in two bowl games. However, Harnish's health is a problem, leading to him missing several games in his first two years. Harnish was expected to undergo off-season right knee surgery, but put off the surgery. He participated in limited drills early in spring practice, but managed to see more reps later in the spring, culminating with throwing two touchdowns in the spring game.
The offensive line is unsettled after losing a pair of four-year starters and with limited bodies in the spring. The wide receiver spot lacks a reliable playmaker, but the position is filled with talented, but unproven players.
The defense held opponents to 330.3 yards per game in 2009, the best in the Mid-American Conference and 30th nationally. The play of the defense is a big difference between the Kill era and former NIU coach Joe Novak's tenure. The Huskies will miss Coffman's leadership and playmaking ability along with linebacker Cory Hanson, but several younger talented players showed promise during the spring. Defensive end Sean Progar and end Stephen O'Neal had solid springs.
The Huskies face several open spots at key special teams. The Huskies must find a kicker and punter, but welcome returner Tommy Davis.
"Probably my biggest concern right now, to be honest with you, is our kicker and holder," Kill said. "That's the biggest concern I have right now. We signed a couple of freshmen, and we have got a couple of kids here. That's a wide-open situation, to be honest with you."NOTES, QUOTES
--Quarterback Chandler Harnish was expected to undergo off-season right knee surgery, but elected to put off the surgery and test the knee. Harnish, a two-year starter, participated in limited drills in spring practice. He took more reps in the final few practices, passing for 161 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game.
--TB Cameron Bell showed some promise with his size and strength. At 6-2 and 242 pounds, the Iowa State transfer gives the Huskies the option of pounding the ball at opponents.
WR Anthony Johnson -- Might find a spot on the two-deep after a strong showing in the spring game, catching five passes for 90 yards and one touchdown.
RB Jasmin Hopkins -- A shifty runner with speed, Hopkins showed the ability to run after catches and displayed strong running in the spring.
SS Garrett Barnas -- Worked on his footwork and showed signs of developing into a regular contributor. The extra practice time and film work paid dividends, slowing down the game for the former quarterback.
DE Stephen O'Neal -- A player expected to provide depth along the defensive line. The redshirt freshman impressed the coaching staff with two sacks and a pass breakup in the spring game.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We open up at Iowa State and we play our first four out of five on the road. I feel like if we survive our schedule early and get better as a football team, by the time we get to the MAC, we ought to be well-seasoned and ready to play ... if we can stay healthy. I think that is the whole key. We certainly have our challenges early. But the bottom line is winning the MAC." -- NIU coach Jerry Kill on the upcoming season.STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2010 OUTLOOK: Despite getting valuable experience from the extra practices from making consecutive bowl appearances, the Huskies remain a mystery heading into the 2010 season. The Huskies have the tools for another winning season, or could endure a losing season due to inexperience at key positions and a tough schedule. Northern Illinois plays four of its first five games on the road, including at Iowa State, Illinois and Minnesota. Another big season by tailback Chad Spann will help a young offense. The defense is solid along the line, but the back seven is questionable.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Quarterback Chandler Harnish owns all the tools and experience to take his game to the next level. If Harnish can move the chains, keep turnovers low and provide leadership, the Huskies might reach another bowl game. The offensive line is shaky after the loss of a pair of four-year starters. Tailback Chad Spann returns after a breakout season, where he scored 20 touchdowns. The Huskies have several talented backs, but questions persist at wide receiver.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Huskies finished No. 1 in the MAC for the second consecutive season in total defense. The loss of defensive end Jake Coffman will hurt the team's leadership and stability. The Huskies needs to make more plays and force turnovers after intercepting just eight passes in 2009. Strong safety Tracy Wilson leads the secondary. The defensive line is one of the deepest units on the team. Alex Kube and Pat Schiller must help a young linebacking corps adjust to playing big-time football.
SCOUTING THE SPECIAL TEAMS: The Huskies have quietly become one of the best teams in the Mid-American Conference in special teams. The Huskies enter the 2010 campaign with a host of questions at kicker and punter. The loss of kicker Mike Salerno will hurt the offense. The kicker spot is wide open, with freshmen Tyler Anderson and Matthew Sims the leading candidates. The punting position will come down to Josh Wilber or Ryan Neir. Kick and punt returner Tommy Davis is coming off a solid season and ready to become an elite returner in the conference.
--QB Chandler Harnish elected not to have off-season right knee surgery. Harnish was held out of most contact drills in the spring. His knee remains a question mark and still might require surgery.
--RB Chad Spann, who scored 20 touchdowns last year, is recovering from shoulder surgery in January. He was held out of most contact drills in spring practice.
--DT D.J. Pirkle sat out most of the contact drills during spring practices to recover from an injury.
--Long snappers Nolan Owen and Adam Coleman were both hampered by injuries during the spring session.
Previous Report: 04/28/2010