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Opponent Spring Review: Northern Illinois

With spring practices now wrapped up around the country, will take a look at where each of Nebraska’s 12 opponents in 2019 currently stands coming out of spring ball and heading into the summer.

Today we take a look at the Northern Illinois Huskies, as just like Colorado, they will be breaking in a new head coach in 2019.

Former NIU running back Thomas Hammock was named the Huskies head coach after Rod Carey took the Temple job this off-season. Northern Illinois is coming off an 8-6 season in 2018 where the Huskies won the MAC Championship. Three of their six losses came to Power Five teams in 2018.

To get more insight on the Huskies, HuskerOnline caught up with the Rockford Register Star's Jay Taft.

Related: South Alabama | Colorado

Spring overview

After spending the last five season in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens, Thomas Hammock returns to Northern Illinois where he once starred as a running back, rushing for over 1,000 yards in both 2000 and 2001.

Hammock inherits a very good situation at NIU, as the Huskies are fresh off a MAC championship season where they beat Buffalo for the title. Taft labeled Hammock as a "players coach," and he's already been a great fit in the locker room thus far.

Like every year, surviving the early schedule will be a challenge. Last season Northern Illinois played Iowa, Utah, Florida State and BYU in the non-conference, while this year they play Utah again, along with Nebraska and Vanderbilt.

All ten assistant coaches on Hammock's staff are also in their first season at NIU. Their defensive coordinator Derrick Jackson came from Purdue, while their offensive coordinator Eidsness was at South Dakota State in 2018.

Look for Eidness and Hammock to incorporate a lot of run-pass option to their offense, as they will have a completely different look in 2019.

Returning starters 

Despite losing their entire coaching staff from 2018, Northern Illinois returns a solid nucleus of players where they should be in contention again to win the MAC title.

They return 56 letterwinners, 26 on offense, 28 on defense and two specialists. Of those returners, five were All-Mac performers a year ago.

The 2019 spring roster also includes newcomers Mark Aitken, Tyrik Henderson and Tyrice Richie, early enrollees who signed with the Huskies in December. Aitken and Henderson are freshmen defensive backs, while Richie is a junior college transfer at wide receiver.

The Huskies return their top four tacklers on defense in Antonio Jones-Davis, Kyle Pugh, Mykleti Williams and Lance Deveaux, Jr. They also return their top four rushers on offense in Tre Harbison, Marcus Childes, Marcus Jones and Jordan Nettles. Childers returns as their starting quarterback, as he threw for 2,175 yards and 15 touchdowns completing 58.9 percent of his passes a year ago.

The biggest hole NIU must fill is on defense, as defensive end Sutton Smith was the two-time MAC defensive player of the year. He was just drafted in the sixth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers after amassing 29.0 sacks, 56.5 tackles for loss, and 124 total tackles during the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

NIU returns 1,000 yard rusher Tre Harbison.
NIU returns 1,000 yard rusher Tre Harbison.

Offensive star: RB Tre Harbison/QB Marcus Childers 

Sophomore tailback Tre Harbison became the Huskies’ first 1,000-yard rusher since Joel Bouagnon in 2015.

He will be a big part of their offense again in 2019.

Meanwhile, the dual-threat Childers returns after throwing for over 2,000 yards and rushing for 877 yards a year ago. He accounted for 21 total touchdowns in 2018.

Defensive star: LB Antonio Jones-Davis 

Jones-Davis was somewhat overshadowed after the big numbers put up by Smith the last two seasons, but he led NIU's defense with 130 total tackles in 2017.

He also added 14.5 tackles for loss and four quarterback sacks, and he'll be expected to pick up the slack for Smith even more in 2019.

Biggest question: Who will be the guy that carries this defense?

Yes NIU returns their top four tacklers from a year ago, but they still have some pretty loft shoes to fill at pass rush with the loss of Smith.

In 2018, Smith had 15 quarterback sacks, while the top four tacklers had a combined 7.5. The need to find a player or two to step up in the pass rush department, and they need to establish leadership on the defense in 2019.

The last time Northern Illinois came to Nebraska in 2017, the Huskies left with an upset victory and Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst was fired days later, which paved the way for the Scott Frost hire.
The last time Northern Illinois came to Nebraska in 2017, the Huskies left with an upset victory and Athletic Director Shawn Eichorst was fired days later, which paved the way for the Scott Frost hire. (Getty Images)

Early outlook on Northern Illinois vs. Nebraska 

Taft: "For one thing, Week 3, you would hope that this group has everyone bought in by then. I'm just going to assume by Week 3 this team is clicking by that point. NIU has always been a team that has gotten up for big name opponents. They really do, they play up to their opposition. I would tell Nebraska to expect a good game and expect to get the best out of NIU.

"I would say like all the NIU team's of old, Nebraska better expect that they are going to get the best from NIU."

Over 2019 win-loss expectations 

Taft: "The coaches like them in the MAC. It's going to be tricky to see how they get through this early portion of the schedule that includes Nebraska, Utah and Vanderbilt. Nebraska is going to be a real good test for this team to kind of see where they are at early on.

"You are going to learn a lot about them in that non-conference portion of their schedule. We are really going to see what this team is made of. A lot of the MAC coaches think NIU is going to do quite well in the MAC again. A lot of it is going to depend on this defense and who steps up. I did not pick them to win their division in the MAC. I just see too many question marks. I just see too much of having to deal with that transition in there. Right now I'd say they are a 7-5 win team in 2019."