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If the Mid-American Conference media knows anything, then Northern Illinois ought to win its first MAC West division crown since 2005.
The Huskies received 15 of a possible 20 first-place votes in the media poll revealed today at the MAC media festivities in Detroit. Alas, that same media expects Temple to defeat NIU in the MAC title game, but everyone can worry about that result three months from now.
Why are the Huskies so highly touted? They retain 101 of a possible 143 starts on offense. Their primary issue is finding replacements for all-MAC linemen Eddie Adamski (50 starts at center) and Jason Onyebuagu (38 starts at left guard) …though we’ll address their quarterback situation in a moment.
NIU also retains 113 of a possible 143 starts on defense, though that’s a bit misleading. Returning linebacker Pat Schiller, who moved from the middle to the weak-side during spring ball, wrecked his knee at the end of spring and will be lucky to return for part of the MAC schedule. On the good side, the Huskies welcome back veteran nose guard Mike Krause, who made 17 starts before sitting out last season with a resolved heart issue.
NIU also needs to find a kicker to replace the graduated Mike Salerno. Ryan Fillingim, a 2006 Conant graduate, walked on last year after a successful career at Harper JC and has two years of eligibility. He’ll battle a long list of candidates for the job, including freshman scholarship kicker Mathew Sims.
Now, back to NIU’s quarterback issues. The coaches are expecting a three-way battle between incumbent starter Chandler Harnish, backup DeMarcus Grady (who went 4-0 as a starter last year) and junior-college transfer Casey Weston.
Now, you might be asking yourself: Why, if the Huskies already had two juniors with experience, did they bring in another junior in Weston? If you recall, Harnish suffered a right knee injury midway through the season and battled back to play the final three-plus games even though he wasn’t healthy.
Now, to hype the comprehensive Blue Ribbon Yearbook, let’s allow offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover to explain: “After the season it was, ‘He’s going to have to have surgery and then go from there,’ ” Limegrover said in Blue Ribbon. “We had that in our mind, but then (doctors) started to look around and said, ‘Boy, this thing potentially could be a lot worse than we initially thought. This could be career-ending.’ This was right around during recruiting.”
So on the recommendation of Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen, the Huskies signed Weston in February. Weston, who has three years to play two seasons, threw for 2,871 yards and 27 TDs in 9 games for Northwest Mississippi JC last year.
So the Huskies have Weston, who has a big arm and big reputation. They have Grady, who made big strides during spring ball. And, as it turns out, they have Harnish, whose knee injury turned out to be less dire than the doctors suggested. In fact, Harnish even took part in the latter half of spring ball.
With these three viable veteran alternatives, head coach Jerry Kill and Limegrover can ask for the moon during the fall practices that begin on Aug. 5.
“Will we have to make a tough decision?” Kill said Wednesday. “Yeah, but in some aspects, I think with what we’re doing…at the quarterback position the last two years, we’ve scaled things down pretty good. We’re not going to hold anything back. It’s going to be the guy who can keep up with us (that gets the job).
“We haven’t done what we wanted to do the last two years at quarterback. We’ve had young quarterbacks. I mean, shoot, DeMarcus and Chandler hadn’t played. They were work-teamers when I got here. We’ve been very cautious at what we’ve done at that position. As an offensive group (of coaches), we visited and said, ‘We’ve got some talent here. Let’s make them catch up to us.’ That will determine how things work out.
“I think the big thing we’ve got to identify is, if it’s third down and 4, who’s going to be able to make that play? We’ve been in situations where we needed someone to step up and make that pass…and I want to come out of two-a-day camp with so much confidence that I know if we call this (play), we’re where we want to be. That’s what Danny LeFevour could do (for Central Michigan).
"You’ve got to have that guy in this league that can make things happen and make plays. When it’s third-and-2 and you want to throw a hitch out there because there’s going to be nine (defenders) in the box, you know it’s going to be completed. That’s what Danny LeFevour could do. That’s why he was special. That’s what it’s going to take.”
Here are the MAC preseason poll standings:
2. Central Michigan
3. Western Michigan
5. Ball State
6. Eastern Michigan
3. Kent State
4. Bowling Green