Defensive Line Examined in Huskies' Two-a-Day Monday Practice Session NIU looks to repeat as MAC's top-ranked defense
Aug. 17, 2009
DEKALB, Ill. - The Northern Illinois football team suited up in shoulder pads and shorts for its second two-a-day practice session of the 2009 preseason camp at Huskie Stadium Monday. Of primary focus was the Huskie defensive line, a unit that enters the season without the services of two-time Vern Smith Award Winner and the No. 16 pick in April's NFL Draft, Larry English.
English, a defensive end, ended his NIU eligibility following the 2008 Independence Bowl as the program's career and single-season leader in quarterback sacks and tackles for loss. Despite the loss, NIU has significant experience returning up front, thanks to head coach Jerry Kill and his staff's philosophy of rotating up to nine players in throughout the game on the defensive line.
Heading into the 2009 campaign, NIU defensive line coach Jeff Phelps envisions the Huskies operating under the same philosophy as was utilized last season.
"We definitely want to be versatile, and be able to rotate guys in and out of the defensive line," said Phelps. "You can't accomplish it unless you have eight guys that can play. Our guys need to be ready to enter the game, no matter what the down and distance is, how much time is left, or what field position we are faced with."
"We're continuing to develop that type of mentality on our defensive line, but we still need to have some of those guys click over the next couple of weeks. Ideally, we would like to have a lot of guys that can play 35 snaps in a game, as opposed to 70 or 80 snaps. That is going to keep us fresh and make us a better team as we approach conference play."
The unfortunate loss of nose guard Mike Krause during preseason camp has left the Huskies without a true "returning starter" on the line. But defensive tackle D.J. Pirkle, who enters his junior year with 30 career tackles, anchors a talented group of younger players. Among that core is tackle Adam Coleman, who saw action in eight games during the 2008 season.
NIU's pass rush should be in good hands with the return of senior Brandon Bice, who ranked second on the team in both tackles for loss (12) and sacks (6.5) last season. Bice enters his final campaign at NIU with 64 career tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks and seven pass break-ups. Former Marine Jake Coffman, a 25-year old junior, is penciled in at right end after backing up English and making 22 tackles last season.
Redshirt freshman defensive end Sean Progar and true freshman Alan Baxter have both stood out during camp, and should be regular contributors in the Huskies' defensive line rotation.
"The older guys are showing great leadership, and a lot of the younger guys are really stepping up, guys like Sean Progar," Phelps said. "He is really going to be able to help us out on the edge from a pass rushing standpoint.
"Adam Coleman actually played last year, so brings some experience to the position. But he is a year older, a year more mature both mentally and physically, so we're looking forward to having him in the mix. Alan Baxter has been a really great surprise as a true freshman. He has mentally and physically adjusted to college football, and I think you'll see him out on the field quite a bit this season."
During the 23-period, five-minute morning session, NIU worked on kick return packages and a variety of skill drills before the offense and defense went head-to-head beginning in the 12th period. On particular display was the two-minute offense drill, which was actually reduced to a 1:30 limit.
With quarterback Chandler Harnish directing the first-team offense, he completed 4-of-5 passes and led the offense inside the10-yard line. But with 3.2 seconds remaining, Harnish's would-be winning touchdown pass was intercepted by linebacker Alex Kube in the South endzone to end the drill.
In quarterback DeMarcus Grady's turn to lead the offense, he went 4-for-4 through the air, and moved the chains once. He was also sacked during the series.
Following the first practice, Kill spoke to the team, and praised the defensive line for enjoying its best practice session of preseason camp. He reassured the players that the Huskies would "win on the defensive side of the ball" this season.
The p.m. session was a 16-period, five-minute workout session. Safeties David Bryant and Tracy Wilson stood out on the defensive side of the ball; Bryant had an interception, and Wilson continued to make impressive plays in one-on-one situations.
Phelps knows to repeat as the MAC's top-ranked defense in 2009, the Huskies must stick to their defensive philosophy of wearing down opponents, and receive solid leadership from its returning defensive linemen.
"Our returning veterans are going to be very important to the success of our defense," said Phelps. "It's really going to help us when we line up against Wisconsin in that opener, and especially as we continue on through the schedule into MAC play. Having that experience is going to be great because those guys are like extra coaches out there on the field."