Aug. 10, 2010
DEKALB, Ill. - For the first time during preseason football camp, Northern Illinois dressed in full pads and embarked on a physical practice under the shadows of a muggy Huskie Stadium Tuesday afternoon. Of specific focus during the two-hour session was the Huskies' defensive backfield, a unit that returns three-of NIU's 11 defensive starters from the 2009 campaign.
Jay Sawvel, the Huskies' Assistant Coach for Defensive Backs and Special Teams, is pleased with the progress his unit has made thus far in preseason camp; and spoke about how NIU's returning experience and veteran leadership will help bolster the NIU defense, which has been crowned the top defense in the Mid-American Conference in each of the past two seasons.
"Experience is the best teacher," said Sawvel. "When you get into a situation where you have guys that have done it before, and that have played in big games, you can't substitute that. Plus, they (the returning starters) are good players. It's one thing to be experienced and another to be experienced with making big plays in big games. We're fortunate to be in that situation; so we're hoping that our consistency and maturity is at a higher level than it has been in the past. That's what we're looking for going forward."
Bolstering the secondary is junior safety Tracy Wilson, who in his first full season as a starter, led the Huskies with 93 total tackles, including 46 solo stops. He led NIU in tackles on six occasions, and logged more snaps than any other Huskie defender in 2009.
"Tracy has really improved, and will continue to do so," Sawvel said. "One thing about him is that you can identify things with him, and that goes all the way back to when he was a redshirt freshman, when we got here. Tracy is a big time talent; he can run, he's physical, he's got a good body, he's sturdy and he's reliable. He's a huge factor in what we do defensively, and is a big part of our plans heading into this season."
Also returning in the secondary are senior cornerbacks Patrick George and Chris Smith
, who started a combined 25 games last season. Along with making 46 tackles, George tallied two interceptions last season, and led the Huskies in pass break-ups. Smith, who transferred from Highland Junior College, dished out 70 tackles in his first campaign in an NIU uniform.
Seven other defensive backs that saw action in 2009 return to the unit, adding to the depth of the secondary. According to Sawvel, developing solid depth in the defensive backfield with be a key component for the Huskie defense.
"We still have to develop some depth," said Sawvel. "We have some guys that have played before, but we also have several guys that either just came into the program last winter, or some that have been here for a year, but that didn't play a lot. We want to have a number of guys that we can rely on; because when you go through the course of a 12-game season, you won't run into many situations when you have the same 12 guys on the field all year long. You have to have depth, and have guys that can come in and play well when they're number is called. That is extremely important."
Wilson has been impressed with the other members of the secondary that will be relied upon to play more snaps heading into 2010.
"We've got an intense group, and they all showed that today. Kiaree (Daniels) made a big hit today, and guys were making plays," said Wilson. "The secondary is really coming along fast. We've added some new wrinkles already, so that's a great sign. We've got some young guys stepping up; guys like Kiaree (Daniels), who has made a big improvement from last year. Garrett Barnas is also really playing well. We'll get Mike (Sobol) back soon, and he's really going to help some of the other guys learn the scheme, along with being a playmaker for us."
One of the returning veterans, Wilson acknowledged that setting the tempo in practice each day will help the defense reach the level it has been accustomed to seeing the past two seasons.
"We have a lot of veterans, at least one at each position," Wilson said. "While we're young at linebacker, we've got a great senior leader in Alex Kube. He brings intensity every day in practice, and that's what I'm trying to do for the secondary. Chris (Smith), PG (Patrick George) and Kiaree (Daniels) are doing the same thing. We know our defensive line is going to bring it every day. So having that experience is going to help us, especially in the first couple of games. It's not going to be new to us, and we'll be ready to execute."
Other returning defensive backs include Barnas, Daniels, and Sobol, redshirt junior Donald Smith, sophomore safety Jody Van Laanen, and sophomore cornerbacks Rashaan Melvin and Tommy Davis. Newcomers in the secondary include redshirt freshmen cornerbacks Sean Evans and Dominique Ware, sophomore Demetrius Stone, and true freshmen Jimmie Ward, Marckie Hayes and Zak Giller.