Northern Illinois Preview 2006 - Defense
Posted Aug 7, 2006

Northern Illinois Huskies Preview 2006 - NIU Defense

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.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Dustin Utschig, 121
Sacks: 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 Zack Holycross
Unsung star on the rise: Redshirt freshman LB David Bryant
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

Defensive Line
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

Projected Starters
- DE Ken West, Sr. - 55 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 TFL, 6 quarterback hurries
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 run.

- 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 quarterback hurries
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.

Top Backups
- 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 Holycross.

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

Projected Starters
- Keenan Blalark, Sr. - 95 tackles, 4 TFL, 4 broken up passes
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.

Top Backups
- 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 spring ball.
- 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.

Defensive Backs
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

Projected Starters
- 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 starting spot.

- 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 strongside.

Top Backups
- 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.

Special Teams
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 Dittbenner.
Special Teams Rating: 7

Projected Starters
- 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 points.
- 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.

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