2007 Northern Illinois Preview - Defense

Posted Jul 17, 2007

Preview 2007 Northern Illinois Huskie Defense

Northern Illinois Huskies

Preview 2007 - Defense

- 2007 Northern Illinois Preview | 2007 NIU Offense Preview
2007 NIU Depth Chart | 2006 CFN Northern Illinois Preview 

What you need to know: The NIU defense is steady with several good, sound players, but for all the quickness and all the athleticism, there weren't nearly enough big plays, not enough production from the secondary, and a good, but not great, year against the run. While the corners will be better, expect more of the same from the front seven; for good and bad. End Larry English and tackle Craig Rusch will be regulars in the backfield. This won't be the nation's 90th ranked defense again, and it'll do a good job of bending, but not breaking.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Tim McCarthy, 111
Sacks: Larry English, 12
Interceptions: Tim McCarthy, Melvin Rice, 2

Star of the defense: Junior DE Larry English
Player that has to step up and become a star: Sophomore FS Spencer Williamson
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DE Brandon Bice
Best pro prospect: English
Top three all-star candidates: 1) English, 2) LB Tim McCarthy, 3) DT Craig Rusch
Strength of the defense: Pass rush, linebacker
Weakness of the defense:
Size, major playmakers

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: The star of the defense, and possibly the best defensive player in the MAC, is junior end Larry English. A 6-3, 255-pound regular in opposing backfields with 12 sacks and 16 tackles for loss last season, and 129 tackles over the last two seasons. He bulked up and now doesn't look like a linebacker playing end; he's a true lineman with NFL potential. Too fast for most tackles, now, if his banged up knee is fine, he should be even more productive after two years of experience.

With all the focus on English, it'll be up to sophomore Brandon Bice to take advantage on the left side. Taking over for long time producer Ken West, he was one of the stars of spring ball showing off a flurry of pass rushing moves and decent toughness against the run. At 6-3 and 241 pounds, he's just big enough to handle himself against more physical lines.

Back to add more pressure in the backfield will be 6-4, 274-pound junior Craig Rusch, who was one of the team's unsung stars last season with 49 tackles, six sacks and 14 tackles for loss. He bulked up just enough to do even more against the run, but his strength is as an interior pass rusher.

Next to Rusch is undersized 6-2, 258-pound nose guard Alex Krutsch, who's really more of an end playing on the inside. He didn't hold up last year, playing in only seven games and making just 13 tackles with a sack. At his size, he'll have to be part of a rotation.

Projected Top Reserve: While senior Robert Oruche won't start in place of English, he showed this spring that he's too good to not be on the field. A good-sized 6-4, 259-pound pass rusher, he was dominant in the spring game and should see time on both sides. Extremely strong, he's should be able to hold up against the run.

Rotating with Krutsch on the nose is 6-5, 280-pound Adam Schroeder, who brings 22 extra pounds on the inside. He hasn't had to become any sort of an anchor, making 17 tackles and two sacks in nine games, but he has has the size to become one.

Is Zack Holycross healthy? Projected to be a starter on the inside, the 6-5, 290-pound senior was never healthy and missed the year, and spring ball, with a shoulder problem. He's the team's biggest lineman, and he's not bad at getting into the backfield, but he has to get healthy first.

Watch Out For ... Bice. Oruche had the better spring game, but Bice has more upside and will make a bigger career impact. If he can turn into a consistent speed rusher, and teams have to worry about him a little bit, English should go ballistic.
Getting into the backfield. With the emergence of Oruche and Bice, it won't just be English from the outside and Rusch on the inside.
Size on the inside. Schroeder and Holycross had better be healthy and productive, of the line gets really small, really fast.
Outlook: The line wasn't special last season, but it had its moments and got great pressure from the ends. As expected, the front four built on speed and quickness got shoved around by better running teams. Expect more of the same this year.
Rating: 5.5


Projected Starters: Two of the three starters return to the corps, with the one opening on the strongside, losing 96 tackles from Kennan Blalark. It'll be up to 222-pound sophomore Phil Brown, who has unlimited upside after being out with a knee injury last year. He's a great hitter with excellent range, and now he's ready to become one of the team's newest stars.

Up to 232 pounds, junior Tim McCarthy is bigger, and should be better, in the middle after finishing second on the team with 111 tackles.. Able to do a little of everything well, he was good in pass coverage and got into the backfield on a regular basis, but his main job is to help out everyone else against the run. While he's not flashy, he's always around the ball.

Also returning is 6-1, 214-pound sophomore Cory Hanson after making 72 tackles. A speedy defender on the weakside, he's active and is all over the field, but he needs to do more in pass coverage and has to be more disruptive. Tough enough to play on the strongside, he's far more effective in space.

Projected Top Reserve: Junior T.J. Griffin is a former running back who has the talent to become a great defender. At 227 pounds, he has great size and fantastic speed in the middle behind McCarthy if Brown doesn't end up rotating in the middle.

Junior Josh Allen is a decent veteran who wasn't used nearly as much last year as he was as a freshman, when he made 37 tackles and three tackles for loss. He only made seven stops last season, but the former defensive back has enough speed to be more effective as a pass defender on the weakside.

Watch Out For ... Brown. His knee is expected to be 100% by the start of the season, and he'll be one of the team's most important defenders. Able to play inside or out, his talent and versatility allows the corps to be flexible.
Quickness. The corps is built to fly around the ball and swarm, and there will be plenty of chances for everyone to come up with some big stats. The line will be used to get to the quarterback; the linebackers will be used to clean everything up.
Big plays. Considering the overall athleticism in the corps, there has to be more big things happening. It's a solid group that has to be disruptive.
Outlook: There hasn't been a lot of flash to the linebacking corps over the last few years, but that could change just a little bit if Brown and Hanson are turned loose on the outside. There's decent depth, and having a solid veteran in the middle in McCarthy gives the corps a rock to revolve around.
Rating: 6

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: The secondary was awful last season, but there appears to be a chance for a big change thanks to the expected emergence of junior Melvin Rice as a major player. He made 47 tackles, two interceptions and broke up three passes, but he struggled. A different player this spring, he was more physical and more active. Expect a more confident cover-corner who could turn into a top MAC number one.

On the other side will be junior Bradley Pruitt after making 48 tackles and breaking up three passes. At 6-1 and 195 pounds, he's big and physical, but he has to do more when the ball is in the air. After playing extremely well this spring, he appears to have turned a corner and should be more productive.

Mark Reiter will need to be one of the team's top tacklers again as the one returning safety starter. He's not going to make too many big plays, and he's not a huge hitting strong safety, but he's solid. Finishing fourth on the team with 77 tackles with an interception last year, it'll be his job to use his experience to be more of a difference maker. If not, he's not so good that he can't be knocked out of a starting job.

The biggest hole on the defense is at free safety with the loss of leading tackler Dustin Utschig. 6-2, 208-pound sophomore Spencer Williamson will get the first crack at the job, but he could end up moving over to strong safety with far more speed, strength, and talent than Reiter. He made 16 tackles last year as a reserve, and he should shine with more responsibility.

Projected Top Reserve: The battle is on for the starting safety spots, even through Reiter and Williamson will probably start the season. Redshirt freshman Alex Kube was all over the place making tackles in the spring game, standing out just enough to get a shot at the free safety job in fall practices. A pure playmaker, he'll end up finding a spot somewhere.

Sophomore Jeff Fontana started out his career as a strong safety option, but he's fast and athletic with enough range to step in at free safety if needed. He'll start out behind Reiter after making 11 tackles as a reserve, and he'll push extremely hard for the starting job.

Watch Out For ... the safety jobs to be up in the air until the last moment. Williamson has too much upside not to be given a starting shot, but Reiter, even with all his experience, is replaceable.
Cornerbacks. A weakness last year when Rice and Pruitt struggled way too much and didn't look like they knew what they were doing at times, now the light appears to have gone on.
Interceptions. The Huskies picked off just seven passes with linebacker Tim McCarthy getting two of them. The corners might be better, and the safeties will be good, but they need to start being better ball hawkers.
Outlook: NIU has gotten beaten deep over the last few years and was 11th in the MAC in both pass defense and pass efficiency defense. This is a more mature, readier secondary that should be far better. There's depth, options at safety, and emerging stars at corner. It all has to add up.
Rating: 5.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Senior Chris Nendick is one of the nation's best placekickers connecting on 20 of 27 field goals with four of his missed coming from beyond 40 yards. While he didn't show off much in the way of range last year, he has a deep leg that can connect from 50 yards, even though his biggest shot came from 44. The punting game is more of an issue with junior Andy Dittbenner a weak link over the last two years. While he's good at putting the ball inside the 20, pinning 30 career kicks deep, but he hasn't aired it out with a mere 37.9-yard average last season.

Watch Out For ... Greg Turner. The receiver will get more recognition this year as a top punt returner after averaging 12.2 yards per try. Marcus Perez can also return punts, but Turner will blossom.
Nendick inside the 40. He'll get a few more chances to try out some deep bombs next year, but he's as reliable as they come from mid-range.
Punting and kickoff returns. DIttmenner needs to start showing off a bigger leg, while Marcus Perez and Britt Davis have to do more for the kick return game. The Huskies were last in the MAC, and 114th in the nation, averaging 17.33 yards per return.
Outlook: The accuracy from the kicking game is there, and now there have to be some bigger kicks and better coverage all the way around. There's no reason for the Huskies to not do more on kickoff returns, while Turner and Perez will make the punt return game a strength.
Rating: 6


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