April 24, 2006
DeKALB, IL - Four Northern Illinois University seniors-to-be---free safety Dustin Utschig (Winneconne, WI / Fox Valley Lutheran), offensive tackle Doug Free (Manitowoc, WI / Lincoln), defensive end Ken West (Calumet City / South Holland Thornwood), and tailback Garrett Wolfe (Chicago / River Grove Holy Cross)---were named the Huskies' 2006 quad-captains.
Northern Illinois head coach Joe Novak made the captains' announcement following the team's post-spring practice meeting Monday (April 24).
"That's a real good group of captains. I know the coaching staff and the team are extremely pleased with that foursome," said Novak about the annual captains' balloting done by their peers. "Those are four definite work-ethic types with tremendous leadership potential and pride in our program's accomplishments. We can be a good ballclub next fall and it all starts with our senior captains."
In the 105-year history of Huskie football, this Free-Utschig-West-Wolfe quartet represents the tenth time overall that Northern Illinois has boasted quad-captains. A year ago, tailback A. J. Harris, strong safety Ray Smith, and center Brian Van Acker served as NIU's season team captains. Previously, the program had quad-captains in 1970, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1980, 1983, 1993, and 1994.
Novak's 2006 quad-captains feature two preseason All-America selections, the "unofficial" Mid-American Conference tackle champion, and one of the Huskies' premier rushmen and weight-lifters.
"It's an honor," said West, who produced a 530-pound squat lift in 2005. "It (captaincy) really hasn't settled in. I was surprised when coach Novak called my name at our team meeting. At the same time, I'm glad my teammates respect my leadership ability. It is hard to believe, thinking about the Ohio State game (September 2) and being out there doing the coin toss in front of 110,000 people. I'll just try to go out and do my best, help the younger players, and work hard.
At 6-foot-1 and 238 pounds, West heads into his senior campaign with 19 starts and 1,529 overall snaps in 33 Northern Illnois career appearances. A year ago, No. 34 finished second in team QB hurries-pressures (17), third in QB sacks (three for 13 yards), fourth in tackles for loss (four for 10 yards), and 10th in overall stops (65). In 2005, West won his third letter and 11 starts at left end in 12 games, plus posted a career-high seven hits on three occasions.
The 5-10, 189-pound Utschig came into his own last year in his first season as a regular by leading the MAC and his teammates with 121 tackles and seven twin-digit hit outings in 11 starts (NIU's defensive statistics are derived from the coaching staff's game films). No. 35 led the Huskies in tackles, solo hits (88), and fumble-cause stops (two) last fall. His three interceptions ranked second on the team and No. 8 in the Mid-Am. Utschig was named MAC West Player of the Week with 15 tackles and two "picks" vs. Toledo. In his first career start, he made a career-best 17 stops vs. No. 4 Michigan.
"This is the most important award I've ever received," Utschig said. "When you get such a vote of confidence from your teammates, it certainly means a lot. These are the guys on the field and in the locker room. It's like a second family. I hope I can set an example for the young guys by my actions and help out whenever I can."
Wolfe, the 5-7, 173-pound All-America, returns as the nation's leading major-college rusher (175.6 yards-per-game average) and all-purpose yardage practitioner (200.2 ypg.). Described as "electric," "a small pack of dynamite," "the most exciting runningback east of Los Angeles (and Southern California's Reggie Bush)," and "a home-run hitter," Wolfe missed the spring due to his right shoulder rehab after January surgery, but made the preseason First-Team Playboy All-America unit. No. 1 also heads into 2006 as the country's active career rushing leader (3,236 yards) and 14 100-yard performances.
"For my teammates to look at me in that light as a captain is the most important honor I've received," Wolfe said 11 days after finding out about the Playboy All-America accolades. "That (captaincy) really means a lot to me. It's been a heckuva two weeks. I'm excited and I'm proud to be one of the guys representing our team. The main thing is to lead our team to a championship and represent the university in a first-class fashion. To me, this is the icing on the cake."
Free represents Novak's second preseason All-America candidate this year. Often compared to ex-Northern Illinois All-America offensive tackle Ryan Diem (now starting with the National Football League Indianapolis Colts), No. 62 combines his size, athleticism, and speed in that 6-foot-7 and 307-pound package. A First-Team All-MAC pick in 2005, Free was rated among the top three non-skill position players in the country by Bill Curry of ESPN.com. CollegeFootballNews.com called him "...a frightening blend of strength and speed." Last season, Free tied for the team's top blocking grade (91 percent) and finished No. 2 in "flatback" blocks (13) and No. 3 in knockdowns (49). In 2006, he owns an active string of 36 consecutive starts and 156 knockdown blocks in 2,287 career snaps. Free was unavailable for comment.
(For further information, please contact Mike Korcek) -NIU-