Northern Illinois leads league again with 10 All-MAC football picks



December 1, 2003


CLEVELAND, OH --- Northern Illinois University’s football program made its case for post-season competition by leading the coaches’ All-Mid-American Conference all-star team for the second season in a row.

The 2003 All-MAC grid squad was announced by loop commissioner Rick Chryst on Monday (December 1).

Not only did the Huskies---who finished the regular season with a 10-2 overall record and currently rank No. 29 in both national polls this week---top the Mid-Am with 10 all-league selections, but Northern Illinois featured a conference-high and school-record seven First-Team All-MAC picks. NIU led the league with 11 overall All-Mid-Am choices in 2002 and had six first-teamers in 2000.

Named First-Team All-MAC in balloting by the loop’s 14 head coaches this year were senior tailback Michael “The Burner” Turner, senior placekicker Steve Azar, senior wide receiver P. J. Fleck, and junior offensive tackle Jake VerStraete on offense, plus linebacker Brian Atkinson, defensive end Vinson Reynolds, and cornerback Randee Drew on defense. Senior strong safety Akil Grant made Second-Team All-Mid-Am while senior linebacker Nick Duffy and senior center Todd Ghilani were on the Honorable Mention All-MAC unit.

“That’s a tremendous accomplishment for our program in a very, very competitive league,” said Huskie head coach Joe Novak. “Ten All-MAC players and seven first-teamers is really indicative of this group. There’s eight seniors among that ten. That was a great senior class. Production-wise, you can’t beat that group. You’re talking about some outstanding three-year regulars and people such as Michael Turner, Steve Azar, P. J. Fleck, Akil Grant, Randee Drew, and Nick Duffy who really piled up some great numbers for our program. To be honest, I don’t know if you could ever match such a senior group.”

East Division champion Miami (OH) wound up with nine All-Mid-Am picks---led by First-Team All-MAC quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Marshall and Toledo were next with seven all-league performers, followed by West Division kingpin Bowling Green State, Akron, and Western Michigan with five apiece.

Azar (Colorado Springs, CO / Highlands Ranch) made Northern Illinois history by becoming the school’s initial four-time All-MAC gridder. A semifinalist for the prestigious Lou Groza National Placekicker Award, the 5-foot-7, 195-pound senior set league records for career kick-scoring (370 points) and career field goals (73). Azar set numerous Huskie records---including five of the program’s six longest field goals---and previously made First-Team All-Mid-Am in 2001, Second-Team in 2002, and Honorable Mention in 2000. He scored 80 points as a frosh, 91 as a soph, 95 as a junior, and 104 as a senior.

Turner (North Chicago) and Drew (Milwaukee, WI / Glendale Nicolet) represent two of the six league First-Team repeaters with Toledo offensive lineman Nick Kaczur, Marshall wide receiver Darius Watts, Western Michigan defensive end Jason Babin, and Central Florida defensive back Atari Bigby. Five 2003 First-Team All-MAC representatives were second-teamers in 2002---including NIU’s Atkinson, Miami (OH) QB Roethlisberger, Marshall defensive lineman James Martin, Bowling Green State defensive back Janssen Patton, and Ball State defensive back Justin Beriault.

Known nationally as “The Burner,” the 5-10, 232-pound tailback appears to have clinched his second straight Mid-Am rushing title with 1,648 yards this season. For the second consecutive year, Turner is the Northern Illinois candidate for the league’s prestigious Vern Smith Leadership Award---symbolic of the loop’s MVP---and a semifinalist for the Doak Walker National Runningback Award. “The Burner” finished his regular season as the MAC’s No. 2 all-time rusher and No. 13 on the NCAA list with 4,941 career yards. Among his numerous entries into the Huskie Record Book, Turner is No. 1 in school career rushing, No. 1 in career all-purpose yardage (6,038), No. 1 in career touchdowns (47), No. 1 in career 100-yard games (21), and No. 1 in career rushing attempts (940).

The 5-11, 180-pound Fleck (Sugar Grove / Maple Park Kaneland) wound up No. 4 in league receiving and No. 15 nationally with 77 catches for 1,028 yards and six TDs this fall. The sure-handed No. 82 set Northern Illinois career records in punt returns (87) and PR yardage (817). Those 77 receptions rank second only to NIU Hall of Famer and Third-Team All-America Dave Petzke (NCAA-leading 91 grabs in 1978). Fleck’s 179 career receptions and 2,162 catch yards rank No. 3 on the school’s all-time list. Two weeks ago, Fleck was named to the First-Team CoSIDA District V All-Academic squad.

In his second year as a regular, VerStraete (Atkinson / Geneseo J. D. Darnall) blocked for a Northern Illinois offense that produced a 2,500-yard passer, 1,500-yard rusher, and 1,000-yard passer for the first time in the program’s 102 years. The 6-foot-7, 311-pound junior led the Huskie O-line in snaps (827) and tied for the best season blocking grades (85 percent). In 12 games, VerStraete collected 47 “pancake” blocks. No. 66 also made First-Team CoSIDA District V All-Academic.

Talk about production, Drew ranked among the Mid-Am leaders in interceptions (six), “passes defended” (six “picks” and a school single-season record 15 pass deflections), and kickoff returns (27 for 581 yards or a 21.5 ypr. average). The 5-foot-8, 184-pounder completed the regular season with 174 career stops, 38 deflections, and 14 pass thefts.

Atkinson (Chicago / Fenger)---the other junior---led the Huskies in total tackles (108), solo hits (65), QB sacks (six), and QB hurries-pressures (12) in 2003. The 6-1, 223-pounder---known to his teammates as “The Beast”---recorded five twin-digit tackle games---14 apiece vs. Buffalo and Bowling Green State, 13 vs. Iowa State, plus 11 vs. Ball State and Alabama.

Reynolds (Detroit, MI / St. Martin dePorres) really came into his own as a senior---capped by making First-Team All-MAC. The 6-1, 255-pounder shared the Northern Illinois QB sack (six) and fumble-cause hit (three) lead, rated No. 1 in team tackles for loss (15 for 53 yards), and wound up No. 2 in QB hurries-pressures (11) as a first-time regular (11 starts in 2003).

Sidelined four games with a left knee sprain this year, Grant (Kankakee) made Second-Team All-MAC and notched 93 tackles and 361 career stops. Duffy (Wheaton / Warrenville South) missed half the season, posted 62 hits, and notched 339 career tackles. Ghilani, a Second-Team All-MAC pick in 2002 and a three-yeare regular, led the team in “pancakes” (75).

The 60-player school-by-school All-Mid-Am breakdown: Northern Illinois (10), Miami (OH) (9), Marshall (7), Toledo (7), Akron (5), Bowling Green State (5), Western Michigan (5), Ball State (3), Central Michigan (3), Eastern Michigan (2), Central Florida (2), Buffalo (1), and Kent State (1).

Other league football awards will be announced this week include MAC Freshman of the Year and Special Teams Player of the Year Monday (December 1), Offensive and Defensive Player of the Year and Coach of the Year Tuesday (December 2), and the Vern Smith Leadership Award recipient Wednesday (December 4).

The coaches’ 2003 All-Mid-American Conference football team:

First-Team All-MAC Offense: C---Scott Mruczkowski, Bowling Green State; OL---Nick Kazcur, Toledo; OL---Nate McPeek, Marshall; OL---Jacob Bell, Miami (OH); OL---Jake VerStraete, Northern Illinois; TE---Andrew Clarke, Toledo; WR---Darius Watts, Marshall; WR---Lance Moore, Toledo; WR---P. J. Fleck, Northern Illinois, QB---Ben Roethlisberger, Miami (OH); RB---Michael Turner, Northern Illinois, RB---Anthony Sherrell, Eastern Michigan; RB---P. J. Pope, Bowling Green State; PK---Steve Azar, Northern Illinois.

First-Team All-MAC Defense: OLB---Lorenzo Scott, Ball State; OLB---Brian Atkinson, Northern Illinois; DL---Jason Babin, Western Michigan; DL---Vinson Reynolds, Northern Illinois; DL---Phil Smith, Miami (OH); DL---Jamus Martin, Marshall; ILB---David Lusky, Eastern Michigan; ILB---Terrell Jones, Miami (OH), DB---Janssen Patton, Bowling Green State; DB---Randee Drew, Northern Illinois; DB---Atari Bigby, Central Florida; DB---Justin Beriault, Ball State; P---Adam Anderson, Western Michigan.

Second-Team All-MAC Offense: C---Todd Londot, Miami (OH); OL---Erik Faasen, Toledo; OL---Travis Barclay, Ball State; OL---Adam Kieft, Central Michigan; OL---Ben Herrell, MIami (OH); TE---Matt Brandt, Miami (OH); WR---Matt Cherry, Akron; WR---Martin Nance, Miami (OH); WR---Greg Jennings, Western Michigan; QB---Josh Harris, Bowling Green State; RB---Jerry Seymour, Central Michigan; RB---Earl Charles, Marshall; RB---Trinity Dawson, Toledo; PK---Jason Swiger, Akron.

Second-Team All-MAC Defense: OLB---Terna Nande, Miami (OH); OLB---Charles Tynes, Marshall; DL---Jack Gitler, Western Michigan; DL---Frank Ofili,Toledo; DL---Mitchell Crossley, Bowling Green State; DL---Toriano Brown, Marshall; ILB---Brock Dodrill, Toledo; ILB---Chase Blackburn, Akron; DB---Rickey McKenzie,Akron; DB---James King, Central Michigan; DB---Akil Grant, Northern Illinois; DB---Mark Graham, Buffalo; P---Matt Prater, Central Florida.

Honorable Mention All-MAC (next in top six voting regardless of position): WR---Kendrick Mosley, Western Michigan; C---Todd Ghilani, Northern Illinois; ILB---Eric Mahl, Kent State; TE---Mike Brake, Akron; TE---Jason Rader, Marshall; ILB---Nick Duffy, Northern Illinois.

(For further information, please contact Mike Korcek) -NIU-



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