NIU looks to challenge for the MAC title

Jerry Kill admits Northern Illinois progressed faster than he thought it would when he took the job two years ago.

At that point, the team was coming off a disappointing 2-10 season that featured multiple injuries to key players. Kill wasn’t sure what to expect, so he braced himself for a rebuilding process.

“When you come off a 2-10 season, you don’t know where the confidence of the kids is,” Kill said. “We’re still going through the transition to be honest with you. I don’t think in college football until you have four recruiting classes that you don’t really develop an identity. I thought that by year three we might be able to get into a bowl game.”

But the Huskies went to two bowl games in Kills first two seasons and were in the race for the West Division in the Mid-American Conference.

With Central Michigan and Western Michigan in transition and Toledo building with young players, the 2010 season might be as good as any for the Huskies to ascend to the top of the conference.

“Our best years are still ahead of us,” Kill said. “I think years four and five we should have a really, really good team. But we’re building some depth and I look for us to be better than we were a year ago. I thought we got better from the first year I was here to the second and I think we’ll definitely be better than what we were last year. We’ve got more talent, more speed and more athleticism.”

The Huskies have 42 redshirt freshmen and sophomores on their spring roster and signed a class of 26 players, 22 of which are true freshmen. With youth comes competition. Kill said his goal in the past two recruiting classes was to get better talent than he did the year before. He feels like he’s done that especially at the running back and quarterback positions.

Starting quarterback Chandler Harnish is questionable for spring football as he continues to rehab the right knee he injured midway through the 2009 season. Because of that, Kill signed quarterback Casey Weston from Northwest Mississippi Junior College. Weston holds Northwest Mississippi JC records for career passing yards (4,943), completions (394) and attempts (695). He also threw 42 touchdowns during his career. Kill said Weston gives the Huskies immediate relief if Harnish is injured. Harnish will be the starter in the spring if he can play, but if he can’t, the competition is open.

“He’s doing some things in the offseason, but that’s a big question mark,” Kill said of Harnish’s status. “That’s why we recruited a junior college quarterback that’s very talented. Because if something happened with Chandler, I want to make sure we have a guy that’s been underneath center.”

Kill also noted that last year’s backup DeMarcus Grady has been progressing and that redshirt freshmen A.J. Hill and Jordan Lynch also could emerge in the competition.

But Kill said he wants his team to establish an identity as a balanced offense.

Last season, the running game dominated behind senior Chad Spann. The Huskies added Jasmin Hopkins, who was the National Junior College Athletic Association Offensive Player of the Year after leading the NJCAA in rushing with 1,931 yards. And he’ll fight for time with Me'co Brown, Ricky Crider, Cameron Bell and Antione Kirkland. Brown was the primary backup last year, but family problems and injuries limited him late in the year. Kill made sure to note that Brown’s issues were personal and were not because of disciplinary issues.

Kill said even though it looks like he has a crowded backfield, he thinks the competition will only make the team better.

“I want competition,” Kill said. “You get good when you develop depth and athleticism and you don’t have to put up with anything, so to speak. And people have to compete everyday. That’s why USC is special. They have lots of good players. We’re certainly not USC, but we want to have as many good players as we can to create competition.”