2022 G5 Preview: How Repeatable Is NIU's Breakthrough?
The Huskies were awesome in 2021, but won a whole lot of close games. Can they sustain that?
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Let’s take a quick trip into Northern Illinois’ 2021 schedule. From the jump, we’re greeted with a one-point 22-21 win over Georgia Tech, which came on a game-winning touchdown with only 38 seconds to play. A week later, NIU came up a touchdown short against Wyoming, falling 50-43 as the Cowboys found a touchdown with 1:38 to play.
Skip over a pair of blowouts in either direction and we’re back in with a seven-point win over Eastern Michigan, a two-point win (with a game-winning field goal) against Toledo, an eight-point win against Bowling Green and a one-point win against Central Michigan (with a game-winning field goal).
Kent State knocked the Huskies off 52-47 and they promptly right back to it, topping Ball State by one point with a game-winning field goal. It took overtime to topple Buffalo, moving NIU to 8-3 on the season. It suffered a blowout loss to Western Michigan and grabbed a blowout win of its own over Kent State to win the MAC, before coming up roughly one-yard short of beating Coastal Carolina in the Cure Bowl to finish the season 9-4.
For those keeping track at home, that’s 10 one-score games – seven wins to three losses – and six games that weren’t decided until the final two minutes of action (four of which NIU won). The Huskies scored 21 fewer points than they allowed on the season and won the MAC while claiming seven of nine league games with an average score of 32.7-30.8.
Two things can be true at once here. NIU took a giant step forward with one of the nation’s youngest rosters in 2021 and deserved the improvement that it showed; this past season was not sustainable and NIU’s record will tumble if the improvement does not continue into 2022.
That’s bad news. College football development isn’t linear, and more often than not it seems that teams that arrive ahead of schedule do not then continue drastic improvement into becoming the group they were at one point expected to be. Sometimes, the surprise breakthrough year proves to be the best, and that certainly could be the case here.
But if returning production and talent entering the program is the only factor being considered here, and we are looking at NIU as a candidate for linear improvement, there’s a chance that this roster can exceed what it did last year while probably finishing in roughly the same place it did last season. Luckily, in the MAC, that probably means another conference crown unless Central Michigan’s defense, Eastern Michigan’s defense or Toledo’s coach are in for some serious improvement of their own.
On the returning production front, it would be hard to ask for much more than NIU is getting. The Huskies are returning 17 players with serious starting experience and another 19 with either some starting experience or strong depth snaps. Six major contributors from the 2021 roster are departing: linebacker Lance Deveaux (NFL), halfback Jay Ducker (Memphis), center Brayden Patton (NFL), fullback Clint Ratkovich (NFL), wideout Tyrice Richie (NFL) and rover Dillon Thomas (Missouri State). A few more depth pieces depart (halfbacks Julius Bolden and Erin Collins and offensive lineman Jack Wilty). That’s it.
Of the players returning, to start at the top, quarterback Rocky Lombardi leads the charge. After several years of struggling to find a groove at Michigan State, Lombardi found his forever home last year and is back for a second and final year in DeKalb.
He fit offensive coordinator Eric Eidness’ system perfectly, which has been designed around the Thomas Hammock-directed program ethos of hard-nosed, run-first football. Lombardi kept NIU on schedule, completing 58.3 percent of his passes for 2,597 yards and 15 scores to eight interceptions and rushing 94 times for 473 yards and nine more touchdowns.
He’s not a stunning passer and isn’t likely an NFL guy, but he moves the chains, runs the offense really well and he’s only going to get better with another offseason under his belt. His ability to gut out games late is appealing too, especially in a league that’s so prone to close matchups.
Ducker’s departure at halfback, despite returning production in the room, is a painful one for NIU. Ducker was the MAC freshman of the year after bursting onto the scene in relief of Harrison Waylee when he suffered an early injury. He had pretty much won the job outright by the end of the season but did split snaps with halfback Antario Brown, Lombardi and Ratkovich. Either that caused some issues with Ducker or something that happened off the field did, because he entered the portal in December and was off to Memphis by early January. He cited a lack of trust from the coaching staff as the reasoning behind his decision.
“For me trust is a big thing. Me and my coaches didn’t have trust,” Ducker said to Neb Preps of his decision to leave NIU. “I feel like they weren’t being honest with me.”
Ducker sure looked like the future of the position at NIU and was a huge recruiting win for Hammock and his staff. Losing him stings badly, even with the players that are returning.
The main two to know are Brown and Waylee. The former had a pair of really nice games to bookend the season, rushing for 101 yards on 16 carries in his first career game against EMU and 105 yards on 12 carries against Coastal Carolina to end the year, surrounding a year of hit-or-miss contributions.
He didn’t play particularly well against Toledo in his second game of the year and ceded his spot to Ducker, only to return late in the season after a pair of nice runs against Buffalo and Western Michigan seemed to earn him a spot back in the rotation against Kent State and then the Chanticleers. He may not be ready to be a true bellcow, but he’s a powerful runner and can play very well in a rotation with Waylee.
That will depend on the health of the latter, though. He suffered an arm injury against EMU that proved season-ending, cutting short what had been a really strong start to his sophomore campaign after he served as one of the lone bright spots in that winless 2020 campaign. Waylee generated 574 yards on 101 carries across five games and can almost certainly replace Ducker’s 2021 production this upcoming season as long as he can stay on the field. He fits with Brown well too, as a smaller, quicker back to complement Brown’s power. Mason Blakemore also returns as RB3.
The rushing attack will be without the help of Ratovikich as a blocker and short-yardage menace (13 touchdowns on a 4.4-yard average), but does return tight end Miles Joiner and four starting linemen, including all-MAC second-team right tackle Nolan Potter and third-team right guard Logan Zschernitz. Marques Cox returns at left tackle and J.J. Lippe is back at left guard, with Patton – a second-team selection himself – as the only departure. Backup center Pete Nygra will be tasked with filling in.
Joiner will have some help at tight end too, because Tristen Tewes is returning for sure, and Liam Soraghan appears to be doing the same. Soraghan earned more starts than any of them in 2021, but Joiner has the highest potential of the bunch and is the best pass catching threat. Soraghan is the best blocker, Tewes splits the difference.
Linebacker Brock Lampe earned backup fullback recognition on 2021 depth charts and could be in to take over that job in 2022 if there’s no need for him on the other side of the ball, though one of the tight ends could likely handle it too if needed. Tewes, at 6-3 and 246 pounds, is the only who who really fits the mold.
Wide receivers aren’t as critical in NIU’s offense as they are in other MAC systems, but the Huskies do return a pair of good ones in former walk-on Trayvon Rudolph and Cole Tucker, one of the most experienced players on the team.
Rudolph made the leap from spot contributor to excellent for four games against CMU, Kent State, Ball State and Buffalo with 32 receptions for 657 yards and five scores, but hauled in only 19 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns in his other nine games. His rise did coincide at least partially with the end of Richie’s season (though he wasn’t especially good at the end of the year and Richie was out after Nov. 3), so there’s some reason to believe that in a full year without Richie, Rudolph can make a full move into being a top wideout. His size is better suited for the slot, but NIU may not use three wide receivers enough to justify that as a full-time home.
Tucker, meanwhile, enters his fifth year with the program and will be trusted now as the program’s best possession wideout with Richie gone, while Rudolph works more down the field. He missed all of October but was really good upon his return, logging 29 receptions for 369 yards and a pair of scores in the last five games of the season.
It’s unclear if either player is quite ready to be a true WR1, but NIU didn’t really need one last season and may not again this season. Mohamed Toure also returns after getting a start in the Cure Bowl, as does slot man Messiah Travis and youngster Billy Dozier. The former is likely the first off the bench on the outside, Toure is likely the answer in the slot with Rudolph and Tucker outside, Dozier is still just a depth piece barring a big offseason.
The Huskies added a pair of transfers at wideout too in Illinois State’s Kacper Rutkiewicz and FIU’s Shemar Thornton. The former is an Illinois native who seems to just be joining to be on a title contender, the latter caught 51 passes for 668 yards and five scores in 2019 but suffered an injury in 2020 that held him out all season and caught only five passes for 27 yards in 2021 after playing in just one game.
He’s been really solid when on the field, but injuries have derailed the vast majority of his career. NIU is making a high reward, low risk bet by bringing him in. If healthy, he can move outside and bump Rudolph into the slot. If not, there’s enough depth elsewhere that it won’t be a huge deal.
Just about every piece of the (admittedly, not very good) defense returns. Up front, NIU has a huge herd of linemen to choose from, led by all-MAC third-team defensive tackle James Ester and defensive end Ray Thomas. The former was a huge hassle in the run game even without a ton of tackles to show for it, and the latter seems to be one of NIU’s best shot at a true pass rusher – though no one was especially good at that last year.
Devonte O’Malley returns at the other end spot as the other best shot at a pass rusher. He had four sacks last year but didn’t do a whole lot else, sharing time with Michael Kennedy, who also returns for a fifth year after his best season as a Husky (44 tackles, four TFL, one sack). Pierce Oppong and Ivan Davis return on the ends as well, largely as depth pieces.
Demond Taylor is back at tackle next to Ester, though it wouldn’t be a surprise to see O’Malley slide in there to make room for Kennedy on the end and to provide some more depth on the inside. He’s athletic enough to do both, but at 6-3, 273 pounds, he fits really well next to the 6-3, 286-pound Ester while offering some rest to Taylor, who is the biggest contributing tackle at 296 pounds.
The linebacker room is just about the only one that’s seen any attrition this offseason. Deveaux is gone after six years with the Huskies and hybrid (NIU calls it the Rover) linebacker/safety Thomas is transferring to Missouri State. The former led NIU in TFL with nine, the latter did a little bit of everything. Both will be missed, neither is irreplaceable, especially with four starters back in the secondary and Nick Rattin returning at middle linebacker.
Rattin racked up 70 tackles and six TFL (one sack) in his third year as a serious contributor but first full year as a starter (only six games in 2020) and will work as the centerpiece of the defense. He’s not likely to rack up havoc play, but he’s a trustworthy tackler and fits all of the middle linebacker stereotypes that would usually be mentioned here. You know the drill here. Makhi Nelson-Douglas will rotate in here as needed.
Deveaux’s natural successor is one of Daveren Rayner (who backed him in the bowl game) or Jaden Dolphin (who is a little bit bigger) with whoever doesn’t land here likely sliding into the vacant Rover spot. Rayner was really good when he was on the field but played in only six games, Dolphin provides more of a havoc threat but is still learning the position.
Izayah Green-May arrives by way of Wisconsin and could factor in at linebacker, though as a product of that 3-4 defense at OLB and with his size (6-6, 234) he may fit better as a rush end, unless NIU is planning to rework that Rover spot into something closer to the Leo (end/linebacker hybrid) that former Oklahoma State defensive coordinator (and now Ohio State defensive coordinator) Jim Knowles runs.
Safety C.J. Brown leads both the secondary and the defense at large. He piled up 107 tackles last season, and though that’s entirely too many for a safety to have, it’s a nice boost to know that he can do that. This was not always a defense that tackled especially well in open space outside of him.
Jordan Hansen, Muhammad Jammeh and Jordan Prophete return to battle for the other safety spot, with Hansen and Prophete as the favorites entering spring ball. None were excellent but all flashed in 2021. Devin Lafayette’s health could throw a wrench in this too, because he may end up snatching the job out from all three if he can return to full strength after missing all but one game in 2021 with an injury. He started as a true freshman in 2020.
Lastly, at cornerback, Javaughn Byrd and Jordan Dandy (third-team all-MAC) form a nice duo, with Myles McGee and Eric Rogers off the bench. Neither the run or pass defense was good for NIU in 2021, but the latter wasn’t quite as disastrous as the former and these four played a big part in that. Improvement across the board on defense isn’t going to yield a great group – the pass rush and run stuffing just offer up too many questions to expect that – but could produce much better numbers.
That’s the story of the whole team. It’s hard to shake the feeling that this group may be in for something similar to what Ball State just experienced, where it returned a huge portion of a title team that rode some funky results, only to see its record dip despite a better roster as those funky results went the other direction.
It’s not that NIU is doomed to repeat that or anything, but sure-thing repeat champions are extremely rare, even when they look it on paper. This team looks it, but maintaining momentum and improving enough to make up for some regression to the mean within the margins is going to be the most important piece in determining whether NIU can actually pull off another title run.