Running Back U? Quarterback U? No, O-Lineman U

Chandler Harnish (12) had Trevor Olson (62) watching his back every game he started at NIU. - Jonathan Daniel

The NIU Huskies have a long history of Running Backs, but also have an even longer history of producing quality offensive linemen.

For a little over a decade, NIU has been associated with the nickname, Running Back U

And why shouldn’t it be? Going back to the year 2000, NIU has had a 1,000 yard rusher every year except 1 (2008). The list of outstanding tailbacks is long: Thomas Hammock, Michael Turner, Garrett Wolfe, Chad Spann.

There were also decent backs along the way like A.J. Harris, Justin Anderson, Ricky Crider, and Jasmin Hopkins.

With Turner placing himself among the NFL’s top backs with the Falcons, NIU will likely always be associated with running the ball and having a succession of great tailbacks.

But this year, and to an extent last year as well, the situation has changed slightly. Yes, the running game has been outstanding again, but the leading rusher has been the quarterback, whether it was Chandler Harnish last year, or Jordan Lynch this year.

There has been small speculation that NIU could become known as Quarterback U if Lynch carries on the legacy established by Harnish. It would be great if it happens, but therein lies another aspect of Huskie football that sometimes gets overlooked by the likes of Harnish, Lynch, Turner, and Wolfe.

NIU can also lay claim to the title O-Lineman U.

The Unsung Heroes

An Offensive Lineman is rarely mentioned in the published game recaps and his name almost never appears in the box score of a game. When it does, it usually the result of a bad snap, a penalty, or a tackle after a turnover.

But as we’ve seen recently with teams like the Packers, the Lions, and especially the Bears, even if you have a great Quarterback, a top Tailback, and playmaking Wide Receivers, it will all come apart if you don’t have a good line.

And it’s not a coincidence that at almost the same time the streak of 1,000 yard rushers began, NIU started having an outstanding chain of linemen.

The list of linemen is even longer than the tailback list: Since 2000, NIU has had offensive lines featuring names like Ryan Diem, Tim Vincent, Jake Verstraete, Brian van Acker, Doug Free, Eddie Adamski, Trevor Olson, and Scott Wedige.

But here an even more astounding stat. Since 1998, the year NIU ended the 23-game losing streak, the Huskies have had an offensive lineman selected for the All-MAC team every year. That’s 14 years in a row, including the 1998 and 2007 teams that won only 2 games each year, a Huskie O-Lineman has been recognized as one of the conference’s best.

The Greatest Feat Yet?

Although the season is only half over, one could argue that this year more than any other gives credence to NIU being O-Lineman U.

Never in recent memory has the team had to replace 4 starters from the previous season, which is what NIU had to do this year, replacing the graduated Olson, Wedige, Joe Pawlak, and Keith Otis. And then Logan Pegram, the only returning starter, broke his leg in Fall Camp and Jared Volk, the only other lineman who had any starts in the past, wasn’t ready to play yet due to the lingering effects of offseason knee surgery.

When NIU stepped onto the field against Iowa last month, the starting five were Junior Matt Krempel, Sophomores Tyler Loos and Tyler Pitt, and Freshmen Andrew Ness and Aidan Conlon. None of them had ever started a game. None had seen playing time other than on special teams and garbage time, or in Ness and Conlon’s cases, none at all.

But when they stepped onto Soldier Field that day, with the exception of a few instances, the line didn’t look any different than it had the year before, when NIU had perhaps the most dominant line in the MAC.

And as games have passed, the line has looked better and better, with Volk returning, and other linemen such as Sophomore Ryan Brown and Freshmen Matt Killian also seeing time in key moments of the game.

The performance of the O-Line was considered one of the biggest question marks coming into this season. And yet, there has rarely been a moment when the five giants up front haven’t done their job and more.

They are carrying on the mantle of their predecessors, and continuing the tradition of O-Lineman U.

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