What you need to know ... The NIU
defense sacrifices size for speed, and while that was great for the back
seven last year, the line didn't produce nearly enough big plays. That
should change as Larry English is on the verge of being an unstoppable
pass rusher on the other side of Ken West, and there's good interior
quickness from sophomore Craig Rusch. However, there's almost no size.
The team's biggest position battle is at corner with twins Adriel and
Alvah Hansbrough looking to hold off sophomores Melvin Rice and Bradley
Pruitt. Whatever happens, the competition should make for a stronger
secondary. The linebacking corps will be steady, but not spectacular.
Tackles: Dustin Utschig,
Craig Rusch, 6
Interceptions: Dustin Utschig, 3
Star of the defense: Senior FS Dustin Utschig
Player that has to step up and become a star: Junior NT
Unsung star on the rise: Redshirt freshman LB David
Best pro prospect: Sophomore DE Larry English
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Utschig, 2) English, 3)
DE Ken West
Strength of the defense: Cornerback
Weakness of the defense:
Size up front, backup safety
Presure, pressure, pressure.
NIU's sack production dropped off the map last year
despite having Ken West at end and emerging stars in Larry English and
Craig Rusch. The defense might be built around speed and quickness, but
size will be an issue against the better teams with no big bodies to
clog things up. If the front four isn't getting into the backfield on a
regular basis, the grand design to go with an undersized front line
won't pay off.
The key to the unit: Ken West and Larry English have to camp out
in the backfield from the outside, and Zack Holycross has to be a top
run defender on the nose.
Defensive Line Rating: 5.5
- DE Ken West, Sr. - 55 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 TFL, 6
Back for his fourth season in the lineup, West has 19 career starts and
has been one of the team's better pass rushers. His production dipped
last year after an eight sack season in 2004, and now he has to be a
steady force who takes attention away from the rest of the line. Not
just a pass rusher anymore, he's strong enough to be a rock against the
- DT Craig Rusch, Soph. - 39 tackles, 5 sacks, 6 TFL
The 252-pound Rusch had a huge freshman season finishing tied for the
team lead in sacks while also proving to be decent against the run. He's
not all that big and will get pushed around by the bigger linemen, but
his quickness usually makes up for any shortcomings.
- NT Zack Holycross, Jr. - 20 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 TFL, 3
The junior might be the key to the line. At 284 pounds, he's the team's
biggest lineman and needs to have a huge year in the middle to help out
the run defense. He's decent at getting into the backfield, but his real
importance will be as an anchor.
- DE Larry English, Soph. - 78 tackles, 1 sack, 7 TFL, 13
quarterback pressures, 2 blocked kicks
He has the potential to be a star pass rusher and turned into one of the
team's top tacklers. He's a speedy 6-3 and 236 pounds who was able to
generate plenty of pressure, but now has to turn into more of a finisher
turning all his pressures into sacks.
- DT Alex Krutsch, Soph. - 6 tackles
More of an end than a tackle, the 246-pound sophomore has to use his
quickness to try to make plays. He's fast enough to be active on the
inside. He has to prove he can hold up against the run.
- NT Adam Schroeder, Jr. - 8 tackles, 1 sack, 2 TFL
A starter for most of 2004, Schroeder saw his role reduced last season
with only four games of action. Now he's healthy and ready to be a pass
rushing factor again on the nose as a 273-pound option behind Zack
There's plenty of speed to go around in the linebacking corps
and more than enough returning production to hope for a big season. Tim
McCarthy and Keenan Blalark combined for 196 tackles last season, but
they might be overshadowed by David Bryant on the weakside if the
redshirt freshman is as good as advertised. There's good depth with
sophomores Josh Allen and T.J. Griffin each good enough to start.
The key to the unit: More big plays. This is a corps
built on speed, and now it has to be more disruptive.
Linebacker Rating: 6
- Keenan Blalark, Sr. - 95 tackles, 4 TFL, 4 broken up
The team's third leading tackler last year came from out of nowhere to
grow into a leader from the strongside. He's fast enough to be used more
as a pass rusher and is great all over the field against the run.
- Tim McCarthy, Soph. - 101 tackles, 1 sack, 3 TFL
While still undersized in the middle, McCarthy bulked up to 226 pounds
and should be even stronger after finishing second on the team in
tackles. He's not flashy, but he's always around the ball and he's
always cleaning everything up on the inside.
- David Bryant, RFr.
Speed, speed, speed. At 193 pounds, Bryant isn't used for his bulk on
the weakside. He started off his NIU career as a running back before
moving to defensive back. It might take him a while to get used to his
new spot, he'll be expected to shine right away thanks to his range.
- Josh Allen, Soph. - 37 tackles, 3 TFL
Allen saw plenty of work as a true freshman seeing a few starters in the
middle of the season with a seven tackle game against Eastern Michigan.
The 217-pound former defensive back is a little bit bigger than David
Bryant on the weakside.
- Phil Brown, Soph. - 41 tackles, 2 TFL
It's all up to an injured knee. The 225-pound Brown is one of the team's
brightest young defensive stars after turning into a big hitter on the
outside and on special teams, but he has to be healthy after missing
- T.J. Griffin, Soph. - 18 tackles
Formerly a power running back, the 243-pound sophomore is the biggest
linebacker in the mix adding more bulk along with his quickness in the
middle. He has enough experience to start if needed.
The secondary gave up plenty of yards, but was decent
against short to medium-range passing games. The early focus will be at
cornerback where identical twins Alvah and Adriel Hansbro will hope
their experience can hold off top sophomores Melvin Rice and Bradley
Pruitt. The starting safeties, Dustin Utshcig and Mark Reiter, will be
more than fine, but there's little to no depth to rely on.
The key to the unit: Hope for more safeties to
emerge while quickly figuring out the corner situation to get the top
players in the right spots.
Secondary Rating: 6
- CB Alvah Hansbro, Sr. - 68 tackles, 3 TFL, 2
interceptions, 7 broken up passes
While not quite the player his
older brother (older by one minute) is on the other side, Alvah had a
more productive season. He has been a fixture at weakside corner for the
last few seasons, but now he's in a big battle with Melvin Rice for the
- FS Dustin Utschig, Sr. - 121 tackles, 3 interceptions, 4 broken
up passes, 2 forced fumbles
Utschig went from being a nice special teamer to the team's leading
tackler in one of the team's biggest shockers. While he might not be a
big play producer, he has just enough range and sure tackling ability;
his 88 solo stops alone would've made him the team's fourth best tackler
last season. He'll be the leader of the back seven.
- SS Mark Reiter, Jr. - 35 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 interception, 2
broken up passes
It'll be up to the 6-1, 191-pound Reiter to take over for all-star Ray
Smith. While he's not going to be the player Smith was, he has the
experience and the ability to be one of the team's top tacklers.
- CB Adriel Hansbro, Sr. - 55 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 interception, 3
broken up passes
A sure tackler and great ball-hawker, Adriel joins his twin brother
Alvah as a longtime playmaker in the secondary. Teams went away from him
a little bit and his overall stats dipped, but he's dangerous on the
- CB Bradley Pruitt, Soph. - 11 tackles, 1 TFL
Pruitt is being given every shot at taking over the strongside corner
job from the 5-10, 176-pound Adriel Hansbro. At 6-1 and 180 pounds, he's
much a much bigger option with just as much speed.
- CB Melvin Rice, Soph. - 15 tackles, 3 broken up passes
After spending his freshman year as a key special teamer, Rice will
battle with Alvah Hansbro for the starting spot on the weakside. He has
the talent to eventually become a top shut-down corner.
Chris Nendick is a solid placekicker and Andy
Dittbenner, with a little more time, will be more than fine for the
punting game. Now the team needs to hope speedy Marcus Perez can handle
all the kick return duties. Last year, NIU was great on kickoff returns
and average on punt returns. Better coverage on punts would be nice
after allowing 10.1 yards per return.
The key to the unit: Hope for Marcus Perez to get the
job done as a kick returner and get more consistency out of punter Andy
Special Teams Rating: 7
- PK Chris Nendick, Jr. - 9-13 FGs, 50-50 extra points
One of the MAC's best kickers, Nendick has a good deep led and is clutch
hitting 25 of 34 career field goals highlighted by a 52-yard bomb
against Akron in the MAC title game. He has hit 94 straight extra
- P Andy Dittbenner, Soph. - 54 punts, 2,083 yds, 38.6 yards per
kick, 16 inside the 20
Dittbenner had a good, but not great freshman
season. He showed a little bit of pop and was great at pinning teams
deep, but he has to be more consistent and he needs to raise his average
up a few yards.