NIU backs competing to start

The position is there for the taking, one that has traditionally been an area of strength for Northern Illinois.

With Chad Spann gone, the competition to replace him at running back has been intense. But as the Huskies prepare for their spring game Saturday, there is no clear-cut front-runner for the job.

Jasmin Hopkins, Jamal Womble and Akeem Daniels are all in the mix to become the starter. Coach Dave Doeren said there will be plenty more competition to be had at that spot come the fall. For now, the three are working on consistency, a key word Hopkins and Womble reiterated in separate telephone interviews this week.

“There couldn’t be a better situation for me,” said Womble, who enrolled at Northern Illinois in January out of Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. “With Chad leaving, there are huge shoes to fill, and there will be a lot of pressure. But as a competitor, you want that pressure.”

Hopkins and Daniels were on the team last season and watched Spann dominate, rushing for 1,388 yards and a school single-season record 22 touchdowns en route to MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors and the MAC Vern Smith Leadership Award.

But then Womble entered the picture. A former four-star running back out of high school in Arizona, he initially signed with North Carolina. He broke his wrist his redshirt freshman season there and then ran into academic troubles, so he transferred to Hutchinson.

Then-coach Jerry Kill offered him a scholarship, and Womble was set to accept. But then Kill abruptly resigned to become head coach at Minnesota and Northern Illinois was out. What changed his mind? Tom Matukewicz was recruiting him, and he stayed on staff. Then he started thinking about what Doeren brings to the Huskies.

Doeren served as the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin, a traditional power run team that used three running backs last season in John Clay, Montee Ball and James White. Those three combined for 3,060 yards and 46 touchdowns in 2010. Clay and White each had more than 1,000 yards, while Ball finished 4 yards shy of reaching 1,000.

“Coach Doeren said nothing was going to change,” Womble said. “He said he would still run the ball and be a hard-nosed team.”

When Womble arrived, he was embraced by the other running backs even though he was their main competition. “There’s been no hostility, and that’s something I’ve appreciated since Day 1,” Womble said. “I didn’t know how people would react to me because there was hype. I came from a bigger school and maybe guys thought I would be coming in there taking their job. But it hasn’t been like that.”

Womble is a different type of running back than Hopkins and Daniels, bringing more power. Hopkins and Daniels are much quicker. But they have the advantage of playing experience at Northern Illinois. Hopkins is the top returning running back on the roster, with 366 yards and two touchdowns.

For Hopkins, the transition to yet another coaching staff has been tough. He also played at junior college in Kansas before arriving at Northern Illinois last year. But he learned enough from Spann to help him headed into this spring even though there are new coaches and new terminology.

“Being patient is one of the main things because when I first got here, I was seeing one thing and running sideline to sideline,” Hopkins said. “But in D-I, linemen and linebackers are just as fast as you so you can’t do that. He also taught me better technique that I had never learned before. I put it all together and it made me into a better player. I’m having a way better spring than I had last year.”

Chandler Harnish returns as quarterback, giving the Huskies yet another threat to run the football. With so many options, it appears the Huskies are in good shape headed into the fall, even without Spann leading the way.

“The competition has made us better,” Hopkins said. “We all know the starting job is open. Whoever is most consistent is going to play.”