Aug. 11, 2009
DEKALB, Ill. -
In its second day in full pads, the Northern Illinois football team turned up the intensity both vocally and physically Tuesday, embarking on 26 periods of five-minute practice sessions at Huskie Stadium. As has been the case for the NIU program over the past year, it was a day the defense enjoyed and at times, dominated.
Anchoring the Mid-American Conference's reigning No. 1 defense is the Huskies' veteran-laden group of linebackers. Of its 11 active linebackers, five are upperclassmen, including seniors Cory Hanson, Spencer Williamson, John Tranchitella and Phil Brown. Alex Kube, a redshirt junior, has started 14 games the past two years, and made 170 tackles.
NIU linebackers coach Tom Matukewicz, who enters his 10th season as a member of Jerry Kill's coaching staff, is pleased with the leadership that is being displayed by his veteran players after the sixth day of preseason camp.
"We've got some guys that have played a lot of snaps for us coming back this year," said Matukewicz. "The biggest impact they have is that they are all at the level that our young guys want to be. Our veterans can help our young guys by telling them what they went through when they learned the package and the system. They can bridge that gap.
"Cory (Hanson), Alex (Kube) and John Tranchitella have all done a great job leading this group, and will continue to do so. We've got some great senior leadership among our linebackers."
Also adding to the depth at the linebacker spot are newcomers Devon Butler, Tyrone Clark, Victor Jacques and George Rainey, along with true sophomore Jordan Delegal. All saw action in Tuesday's practice, and in one drill, Clark shined.
In just the second period of practice, five players (two offensive, two defensive and one ball carrier) went head-to-head in a first-contact hitting drill. Clark impressed, tackling his counterpart on at least two occasions. Along with freshman running back Barrington Scott
, Clark was singled out by the coaches for his hard-nosed performance. An echo from the coaching staff went like this: "We've got some freshmen that will hit ya!"
Matukewicz is impressed with his new linebackers' ability to adjust and become acclimated with the defensive scheme.
"We have four new linebackers, and they are all doing a good job adjusting to this level of football," Matukewicz said. "Tyrone (Clark) has done a good job; he's physically gifted but what I am more impressed with is his maturity, and his ability to fit into the system. He really takes pride in knowing his role and what to do out there on the field.
"Devon Butler is an inside guy that has done a good job; George Rainey is a kid from Milwaukee that played a ton of positions in high school, so he is still trying to learn how to play linebacker full-time. He is going to be an outstanding player for us. Jordan Delegal is a guy who is also versatile, and re-learning the position. He played linebacker in high school, but at Joliet Junior College, he played in the secondary. He really seems to be coming along well, as do most of our young guys. I've been proud of their progression."
At the end of practice, the offense and defense collided in a number of run, pass and blitz packages. In the four-yard drill, in which the offense attempts to advance the ball at least four yards on every snap, the defense held a decisive advantage.
The first-team defense "won" three-of-four possessions, allowing the offense to advance four-or-more yards just once. With the second-teamers on the field, the defensive unit prevailed, 3-0. Then, the newcomers went to work, where the edge went to the offense, which effectively moved the ball at least four yards on six-of-seven possessions.
Matukewicz, the linebackers and the rest of the defense isn't focused on last season's success. Instead, the Huskies are working on improving each day, both on the field and in the film room.
"We've never really focused on the stats or the numbers, rather on the film," said Matukewicz. "When we flip that film on, it better look good. And it doesn't matter who we are playing against. Whether we are playing Wisconsin, Purdue or Western Michigan, the film all needs to look the same and be consistent with what we've coached our guys on."