NIU Grid 'Attack Four-Three D' Special Team Anchored By 22 Returning Letter-winners


March 30, 2004

NIU Grid 'Attack Four-Three D' Special Team Anchored By 22 Returning Letter-winners

DeKALB, IL ---
Ask veteran Northern Illinois University head coach Joe Novak what constitutes the foundation of any successful football team sometime. Or what attributes Novak would prefer the Huskies demonstrate on a regular basis.

Based on 30 seasons in the major-college ranks and 22 of those years on the defensive side of the ball, his automatic, knee-jerk responses most likely would sound something such as the following. Novak Exhibit A: “Good, strong defense.” Novak Exhibit B: “Soundness and consistency on defense.” Novak Exhibit C: “Big-play capability on defense. Novak Exhibit D: “Pursuit to the football on defense.”

Nine years ago, Novak established that fundamental Northern Illinois philosophy on “D” by calling his basic defensive system the Attack Four-Three. The Attack Four-Three. Attack, get it? This is not nomenclature for nomenclature’s sake. During the last four seasons (6-5, 6-5, 8-4, and 10-2) and the Huskie gridiron renaissance, Novak’s defense walked the talk. The result?

A competitive Northern Illinois program that shared Mid-American Conference West Division crowns (2001, 2002), produced major triumphs over Wake Forest (2002), Bowling Green State (2002), Maryland (2003), Alabama (2003), and Iowa State (2003), and broke into the nation’s Top 40. “No question, to win football games, you must make plays---on offense, on defense, and on special teams,” Novak said. “For the most part in recent years, we’ve done this in all three phases.”

Quick Quiz: Who led the MAC with a combined 44 interceptions the last two seasons? Or 23 pass thefts last fall? Who wound up No. 3 in the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division 1-A ranks in “picks” last fall? At the same time, who yielded the fewest overall touchdowns (31) in the Mid-Am last autumn? Quick Answer: Can you say, the Huskies?

A year ago, five of the school-record ten Northern Illinois All-MAC performers played on defense---first-teamers such as linebacker Brian Atkinson, defensive end Vinson Reynolds, and cornerback Randee Drew, strong safety Akil Grant on the second unit, and linebacker Nick Duffy on the honorable mention list. Drew and Grant combined to participate in three national postseason all-star games. That duo---plus Duffy and Reynolds---interest some National Football League teams.

For 2004, Atkinson heads the group of 21 returning Huskie lettermen and six regulars on defense. Even with a new defensive coordinator, second-year Northern Illinois staffer Denny Doornbos, plus first-year assistants Levern Belin (defensive interior line) and Steve Bernstein (secondary), this Attack Four-Three isn’t changing much at all. Statistically, six of the program’s Top 10 hitmen return as do the personnel that produced (1) 15 of last season’s 23 pass interceptions, (2) 34 of last year’s 59 pass deflections, and (3) 30 of last year’s 81 tackles for loss.

“We’ve got plenty of things to work on this spring and need to establish our two-deeps on both sides of the ball,” Novak said. In particular, the Huskies must develop some reliable back-ups on the D-line and in the secondary.

No doubt, that once again, the Northern Illinois defensive strength rests in a talented, aggressive, and deep linebacker corps that features three-plus 2003 returning regulars in Atkinson (Chicago / Fenger), senior Jason Hawkins (Schamburg), junior Javan Lee (Michigan City, IN), and senior Kursten Strothman (Rochelle). That foursome accounts for 11 varsity letters, 45 starts, and 499 total tackles in 124 cumulative appearances. “It’s a solid group,” Novak said. “Definitely, one of our team strengths. We expect both Brian and Javan to be better than a year ago. Both are so athletic. And, of course, it will be difficult to replace someone like Nick Duffy.”

The 6-foot-1, 223-pound Atkinson---the program’s No. 1 active career tackler with 209 stops and a preseason Rotary Lombardi Award candidate---makes the big move from “Sam” linebacker to “Mike” this spring. “Brian has made the adjustment to the middle,” Novak said. “You always put your best player in the middle. You can’t run away from him. He can run a :04.6. Brian’s a better athlete, faster than Nick Duffy who was a darned good, hard-nosed linebacker.” No. 38 enters his senior campaign with 27 starts in 35 varsity appearances. Last fall, Atkinson joined a select group of Huskie First-Team All-MAC linebackers with Bob Gregolunas (1975), Frank Lewandoski (1977, 1979), Mike Terna (1980), and Larry Williams (2000, 2002).

Hawkins (six starts at MLB in place of the injured Duffy), Lee (eight times at WLB), and Strothman (four games at WLB) all won opportunities to start last season. The 6-3, 233-pound Hawkins switched to “Sam” this spring. The athletic 6-foot-2, 211-pound Lee wound up fifth in Northern Illinois tackles with 68 in 2003. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound Strothman has been a Huskie mainstay as a back-up and superior special teams performer (two blocked punts during 2001-03). Junior Jason Hutton (Chicago / Whitney Young) is the fifth established veteran in the group. A four-year letter-winner, Duffy doubled as the heart and soul of that Huskie “D” and finished 13th on the all-time Northern Illinois hit list with 339 career tackles.

In the secondary, Novak’s Huskies have produced eight All-MAC DBs such as Donnovan Carter, Duane Hawthorne, Benji Peacock, Buster Sampson, Jermaine Hampton, Vince Thompson, Randee Drew, and Akil Grant since 1998. The potential to do it again exists in seniors Lionel “Boogie” Hickenbottom (Dolton / Chicago Robeson) and Rob Lee (Port Washington, WI). “Ability-wise, I feel confident about our secondary,” the Northern Illinois bossman said. “Experience-wise, there might be some questions. We’ve got to replace two experienced, multi-year regulars in (SS) Akil Grant and (CB) Randee Drew.” Grant completed his career with 31 starts and 361 career tackles. Drew wound up with 14 career interceptions, 36 starts, 38 deflections, and 174 stops in 44 appearances, plus led the Mid-Am in “passes defended” (six interceptions and 15 deflections) in 2003. Four-year letterman Gerard Taylor was another graduation loss at CB.

At free safety, the 6-1, 196-pound Hickenbottom must regain his sophomore form in 2001 when he victimized No. 31 Illinois for a career-high 17 tackles and added 14 stops vs. Wake Forest. “Boogie” missed all but six plays due to a season-ending right knee injury in 2002 and came back with 107 stops, two interceptions, and six deflections last autumn. “’Boogie’s” having a great spring,” Novak said. “He was a real fine player three years ago and can get back to that level.”

At short side cornerback, Lee made the most of nine starts last fall, ranked No. 4 in Mid-Am interceptions with five (0.20-per-game average), and contributed eight deflections and 59 tackles. “Rob has all the tools,” Novak added. “He’s matured, just needs to be consistent. Rob could be an All-MAC pick and might be the Vinson Reynolds of 2004.”

Soph-to-be Adriel Hansbro (Madison, WI / Edgewood) started three late games at wide side cornerback and topped the Huskie frosh in tackles (42) as a red-shirt. At strong safety, junior Ray Smith (Crown Point, IN / St. John Lake Central) started the final four games, replacing the injured Grant last fall. Identical twin Alvah Hansbro (Madison, WI / Edgewood) and highly touted red-shirt frosh Jimmy Toussaint (Lauderhill, FL / Lauderdale Lake Boyd Anderson) rate as strong back-up candidates at CB. Ditto for senior Devron Francis (Jacksonville, FL / Raines) and junior Deon Smith (University Park / Crete-Monee) at FS, plus soph Dustin Utschig (Winneconne, WI / Fox Valley Lutheran) at SS. “A year ago, Jimmy Toussaint was a Scout Team guy you noticed every day at practice,” Novak said. “He does have that type of potential.”

Upfront, the Northern Illinois D-line brings up some concerns for the second year in a row. Novak seeks another Reynolds who (1) went from back-up DE to First-Team All-MAC in 365 days and (2) shared the team leadership in QB sacks (six), tackles for loss (15), and fumble-cause hits (three) in 2003. The 6-foot-1, 255-pounder was voted the Huskie MVP on defense by his peers. “Outside of Michael Turner and Steve Azar, I don’t think there was a more productive senior last year than Vinson Reynolds,” Novak said. “He really came on for us last year. Basically, it was just hard work and effort.” DE Jason Frank (10 starts at RE) and NT Leonard Cooksey (11 starts) also graduated.

Senior Martin Wilson (Lisle) ranks as the one returning Huskie D-line regular. The 6-1, 264-pounder started 12 times at DT last year and registered 34 stops, three tackles for loss, and seven QB hurries-pressures. Junior Quince Holman (Woodbridge / Downers Grove South) earned two 2003 starts at RE. Soph Eric Pittman (Milwaukee, WI / Vincent) earned one start at NT and junior Justin McIntyre (Shreveport, LA / Evangel Christian) owns two letters at NT. Red-shirt frosh Adam Schroeder (Loves Park / Rockford Boylan) adds depth at DT. On the flanks, Northern Illinois must wait for the maturation of red-shirt frosh Robert Oruche (Bensenville / Fenton), red-shirt frosh Nickolas Sykes (Calumet Park / Oak Lawn Richards), and soph Ken West (Calumet City / South Holland Thornwood). “Robert Oruche, Nickolas Sykes, and Ken West. It’s not a case of ‘if.’ It’s a case of ‘when.’ You don’t know when they’ll blossom---next week or next year,” Novak said. Senior DE Travis Moore (Robbins / Blue Island Eisenhower)---a 2003 Rotary Lombardi Award candidate---needs to get healthy (knee and ankle injuries) and return to that First-Team All-MAC form in 2002.

Do the Huskies have special teams? Do they. How about four consecutive Northern Illinois Mid-Am Special Teams Player of the Year awards---FLK Justin McCareins (2000), PK Steve Azar (2001, 2003), and WR Dan Sheldon (2002)?

“Special teams are nothing but effort and hard work---particularly the non-kicking part,” Novak said. “The last four years, Steve Azar may have spoiled us. He was Mr. Automatic for us, a truly great kicker. The non-kicking things we can work on. Punting, we’re okay. Placekicking? We’re inexperienced to say the least.”

Where do you start regarding Azar? The nation’s No. 9 all-time major-college kick-scorer (370 career points) and No. 9 all-time field goal kicker (73), the prolific Huskie placekicker became the school’s first four-time All-Mid-Am performer in football, a two-time Honorable Mention All-America, and a two-time Lou Groza Collegiate Placekicker Award national semifinalist. Azar booted five of the school’s six longest field goals and set at least 18 major Northern Illinois records. So who’s the heir apparent then? True frosh PK Chris Nendick (Naperville Central) who reports to camp in August. “That’s why we recruited him. Chris is a good kicker. The job can be his,” Novak said. The No. 1 punting job belongs to senior Anthony Gallagher (Davidson, MI / Flint Kearsley) who tied for No. 8 in league punting (40.2 ypp. average), averaged a career-best 46.4 on seven punts vs. No. 21 Alabama, and dropped 23 kicks inside the opposition 20-yard line last autumn.

The non-kicking phase? In 2003, Northern Illinois blocked five enemy kicks (three punts and two PATs). The most importat kick-block happened at Alabama and the results spoke for themselves. The Crimson Tide scored first, but the Huskies blocked the PAT, recovered it, and returned it for the first two-point defensive PAT in school history. The resulting three-point turnaround on that first period play turned out to be the victory margin in the 19-16 triumph.

Returns in 2004? Northern Illinois senior WR Dan Sheldon won Second-Team All-America honors and led 1-A football in punt returns (22.7 ypr.) in 2002. Drew (21.5 ypr.) and Michael Turner (19.3 ypr.) wound up one-two in team kickoff returns a year ago. Watch for Hickenbottom (17.3 ypr.) or some younger talent. “Danny Sheldon has made a lot of big plays for us the last two years,” Novak said. “The three punt return TDs in 2002, the winning TD catches vs. Alabama and Maryland last year, those are big-time plays. Danny’s healthy and should have a great senior year.”



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