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2008 Northern Illinois Preview - Defense
Northern Illinois DE Larry English
Northern Illinois DE Larry English
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted May 9, 2008


CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Northern Illinois Huskie Defense

Northern Illinois Huskies

Preview 2008 - Defense


- 2008 Northern Illinois Preview | 2008 NIU Offense
- 2008 NIU Defense | 2008 NIU Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN NIU Preview | 2006 CFN NIU Preview 

What you need to know: Let's try this again. Injuries crushed a promising defense that should be night-and-day better than last year when it allowed 434 yards and 31 points per game. First and foremost, the front seven has to be far better against the run. It's never a positive when two safeties finish 1-2 in tackling. The undersized tackles have to do a better job against spread attacks, and they have to be stouter against power running teams, and the linebackers need to be better at making plays close to the line. The return of MLB Tim McCarthy from a knee injury and the move of top-tackling safety Alex Kube to the outside should make things better. DE Larry English might be the MAC's best defensive player, and the secondary should be fine, especially at corner, if the safeties are consistent early on.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Alex Kube, 111
Sacks: Larry English, 10.5
Interceptions: Chase Carter, 2

Star of the defense: Senior DE Larry English
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore SS Mike Sobol
Unsung star on the rise: Sobol
Best pro prospect: English
Top three all-star candidates: 1) English, 2) LB Tim McCarthy, 3) LB Alex Kube
Strength of the defense: Experience, Larry English
Weakness of the defense:
Size
on the inside, run defense

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: The best defensive player in the MAC, and possibly the best all-around player in the league not named Dan LeFevour, is senior DE Larry English. A premier pass rusher who cranked out 67 tackles, 10.5 sacks and 17 tackles for loss despite being the focus of everyone's blocking scheme, and after coming off a knee injury, he needs to be back at 100% after suffering a torn pectoral muscle this off-season. At 6-3 and 254 pounds, he has decent size and a blast of a first step. When he gets a step on a tackle, forget about it. While he's more of a beefed up linebacker playing end, he projects to be a great outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme at the next level.

With all the attention paid to English on one side, 6-3, 254-pound junior Brandon Bice has to produce on the other. He showed good promise early last year, but he only came up with 1.5 sacks and a measly 2.5 tackles for loss, with that coming against Kent State, along with 38 tackles on the year. He's tough against the run and he has shown pass rushing ability in practice, but now he has to produce when the lights are on.

The main focus will be on the tackles that got eaten up against power running teams last year. 6-2, 258-pound senior Alex Krutsch is an undersized try-hard player on the nose, but he's more of an end. He gets beaten down by bigger blockers, but he still did a decent job of getting into the backfield with 6.5 tackles for loss along with 44 stops. Shockingly, he was able to hold up well able to stay healthy all year long. He's active, but he has to be more of an anchor.

Trying to provide some more bulk is 6-4, 274-pound senior tackle Craig Rusch, who started the first three games of last year, making ten tackles, before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He had a strong sophomore season with 49 stops and six sacks, and he appeared ready to bust out before getting hurt. When he comes back healthy, he needs to become a top interior pass rusher again.

Projected Top Reserve: With Rusch trying to come back healthy, 6-3, 264-pound sophomore Mike Krause will see more and more time at tackle. He turned in a decent season when thrown to the wolves, making 13 tackles and a sack in seven games, but he lacks the bulk to be a top run stopper.

Needing to come back healthy is 6-1, 295-pound sophomore D.J. Pirkle, a big body who adds much needed bulk, and surprising quickness, behind Krutsch on the inside. He had a good first season with 13 tackles and three sacks with four tackles for loss in only played in five games.

Watch Out For ... more from Bice. He has the moves and he has the upside to become a killer pass rusher, especially with English taking on all the blockers, and now Bice has to produce. 1.5 sacks isn't going to cut it.
Strength
:
Quickness. With active inside presences like Krutsch, and when healthy, Rusch, to go along with English, the line is active and can get into the backfield. There weren't nearly enough tackles for loss last season, but the front four was good at getting to the quarterback.
Weakness
:
Stopping the run. With the lack of bulk on the inside, the line was gouged for 210 rushing yards per game. The tackles should be good if Rusch is back at 100%, but all four spots will have more responsibility to stop the run at the point of attack.
Outlook: For the last few years, the line built around speed and quickness got its lunch handed to it by bigger, tougher lines. The front four should be able to hit the quarterback and it will be disruptive, but if it doesn't do a better job of handling spread attacks and power inside running games, all the experience won't matter much. On the plus side, if Rusch is healthy, there are two first-team All-MAC candidates, with English the other, to build around.
Rating: 5.5


Linebackers

Projected Starters: The linebacking corps could go from a screaming weakness to a major plus with two big moves. The first being the return of 6-0,232-pound senior tackling machine Tim McCarthy from a knee injury that knocked him out almost the entire season. The team's leading tackler in 2006 with 11 stops, he made 16 tackles in the first two games before going down, and when he returns healthy, he'll make a night-and-day difference in the middle of the corps. He's not flashy, but he's always around the ball.

The other big move was taking last year's leading tackler, 6-1, 203-pound sophomore Alex Kube, and moving him from safety to strongside linebacker. Nowhere near big enough to handle getting pounded on game in and game out at his new position, his key will be to get into space and be a disruptive force in all areas. While he made 111 tackles, the downside is that he made 111 tackles from his safety spot. Now his job will be to keep runners from getting to the secondary, and he has the toughness to do it.

Back on the weakside is 6-2, 221-pound junior John Tranchitella coming off a 58 tackle season with seven tackles for loss and two interceptions. He has decent size and excellent quickness, and more than anything else last year, he showed off the toughness to hold up for a full season. With his experience and skills, he has the potential to be even more of a big-time playmaker.


Projected Top Reserve: 5-11, 211-pound senior Josh Allen started almost all of last year on the strongside finishing third on the team with 89 tackles with two sacks and nine tackles for loss. However, the former defensive back struggled too much to make stops at the line and was quite disruptive enough meaning Kube will now get the first crack at the job.

6-1, 214-pound junior Cory Hanson made 72 tackles as a freshman as a speedy defender on the weakside, but he was in and out of the starting spot last year after getting hurt. Even so, he made 55 tackles, a sack, an interception, and three tackles for loss in nine games of work. He's a fast option who'll push Tranchitella hard for the starting gig.

Junior Zach Larsen stepped in over the second half of last season in the middle and made 59 tackles with two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. While the 6-0, 224-pounder improved greatly in his second year, he still struggled to make plays at the point of attack and came up with too many stops down the field. Even so, he averaged a whopping 8.43 tackles per game one he got the starting nod.

Senior T.J. Griffin is a former running back with the quickness and the toughness to do more as a linebacker. A prospect in the middle, he missed all of last year and now will try to be a factor behind McCarthy. At a speedy 6-0 and 227 pounds, he could be moved to the outside.

Watch Out For ... some major position battles. McCarthy is the starter in the middle without question, but Allen is going to push Kube on the strongside and Hanson will want his starting job back on the weakside. All of this could be a plus because ...
Strength
:
... there's tremendous depth. The possible second team could be made up of Allen, Larsen and Hanson. That's not a bad MAC trio. If everyone is healthy, and that's a huge if, the linebacking corps could quickly make a major turnaround in production.
Weakness
:
Making plays early. Too many tackles were made down the field and too many teams were able to get through with their running game to crank out big plays. The linebackers have to be far more disruptive and start wreaking more havoc.
Outlook: Injuries were a major problem for the linebackers, like everywhere else for NIU, but if McCarthy is McCarthy again, and if Kube is as good at linebacker as he was at safety, there could be a big turnaround. There's plenty of depth, lots of good options, and plenty of athleticism. Now, for the first time in several years, the linebackers have to be bigger playmakers and not just a part of the system.
Rating: 6

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: With the move of leading tackler Alex Kube to linebacker, there's a big hole at strong safety that 6-0, 200-pound sophomore Mike Sobol has to try to fill. After missing all of last year, Sobol, a star high school quarterback and Missouri state championship-level hurdler, is a phenomenal athlete, but he has to prove he can be the tackler Kube was.

Also needing to shine is new starting free safety Justin Stewart with Bradley Pruitt moving over to corner. The 6-1, 194-pound sophomore saw a little time last year as a reserve making three tackles, but he should flourish with time and experience. He's smart, extremely athletic, and can run like a corner.

5-11, 172-pound senior Chase Carter was the team's top corner last year making 42 tackles and breaking up five passes, and while he only picked off two passes, he set the school record with 120 yards in returns. The former JUCO transfer is a good open field tackler and will be reliable once he comes back healthy.

Returning on the other side is senior Melvin Rice, a good, but not elite corner with tremendous tackling ability and decent cover skills. He didn't pick off a pass, but he broke up six and made 61 tackles in eight games. The 5-10, 192-pounder doesn't miss an open field stop.


Projected Top Reserve: While Carter is the starter this fall, 6-1, 187-pound senior Bradley Pruitt is option No. 1A at corner after finishing second on the team with 92 tackles with an interception and a sack. While he was a solid free safety, and he could move back there, he'll be tried out at corner after seeing time there this spring. When Carter comes back, Stewart could be out and Pruitt should be back in.

Working behind Sobol to try to replace Kube will be 6-2, 205-pound junior Spencer Williamson after a 34 tackle season as a key reserve. He got a start late in the year at free safety, but with his tackling ability he's better suited to strong safety. He'll be the first man off the bench in the safety rotation somewhere.

Watch Out For ... Pruitt to play somewhere. He's too good to keep off the field, and while he'll start out at corner, he'll likely make a quick move back to his old safety spot.
Strength
:
Options. The corners are experienced and good, and if the safeties come through, there will be depth and possibilities with Pruitt able to move around where needed. Everyone can tackle.
Weakness
:
Interceptions. This has been a major sore spot over the last two seasons. The secondary picked off just five two years ago and just just five more last season. As a team, NIU took away seven. This group has to be better at ball-hawking. 
Outlook: There was a major improvement in pass defense last year, but that was partly because opposing teams spent so much time running the ball. This isn't going to be a great group at making big plays, but it'll be a good last line of defense and it should be better if the experience of moving Alex Kube from safety to linebacker doesn't prove to be a killer.
Rating: 5.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Needing to replace solid kicker Chris Nendick, who hit 12 of 18 field goals, is junior Mike Salerno, a transfer from Winona State with a good leg and decent potential. He's a good prospect and he should be reliable.

The punting game remains an issue with senior Andy Dittbenner struggling a bit over the last three years. While he's good at putting the ball inside the 20, pinning 46 career kicks deep, and he finally started to air it out averaging 43.5 yards per kick. However, he didn't get any help as the team netted a mere 33.82 yards per kick.

Watch Out For ... Salerno to be solid. Nendick was an all-star caliber kicker, and while Salerno might need a little seasoning, he should be fine. He has enough range to nail just about everything from around 45 yards and in.
Strength
:
Punt returns. Good over the last few years, Greg Turner and Matt Simon helped the Huskies average 10.1 yards per punt return. They form one of the team's biggest strengths. 
Weakness
:
Kickoff returns. NIU has been the nation's most miserable team at returning kickoffs for the last two seasons averaging 17.33 yards per return in 2006 and 17.29 yards per try last year.
Outlook: NIU's special teams have been either really good or really bad. Punt returns, good, kickoff returns, bad. Placekicking good, punting bad. Kick coverage, horrible all around. The Huskies can't struggle so much in the third phase for a third year in a row.
Rating:
5.5