'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
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
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 nomenclatures sake. During the last four seasons (6-5,
6-5, 8-4, and 10-2) and the Huskie gridiron renaissance, Novaks
defense walked the talk. The result?
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 nations
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, weve done this
in all three phases.
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 isnt changing much at all. Statistically,
six of the programs Top 10 hitmen return as do the personnel
that produced (1) 15 of last seasons 23 pass interceptions,
(2) 34 of last years 59 pass deflections, and (3) 30 of last
years 81 tackles for loss.
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.
Its 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.
223-pound Atkinson---the programs 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 cant run away from him. He can run a :04.6. Brians
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).
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, Novaks 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. Weve 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. Boogies 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. Hes matured, just needs
to be consistent. Rob could be an All-MAC pick and might be the
Vinson Reynolds of 2004.
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.
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 dont 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)
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. Its not a case of if. Its
a case of when. You dont know when theyll
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
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, were okay.
Placekicking? Were inexperienced to say the least.
Where do you
start regarding Azar? The nations 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 schools 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 schools
six longest field goals and set at least 18 major Northern Illinois
records. So whos the heir apparent then? True frosh PK Chris
Nendick (Naperville Central) who reports to camp in August. Thats
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.
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. Dannys healthy
and should have a great senior year.