How do you replace the greatest player in school history?
It’s very surprising how few college football teams have had to answer that question over the past decade. In this era of big-name schools, conference expansion, cut-throat coaching politics, and faster, stronger, and more complete players, rarely has a team had to replace their best ever player, except possibly Tim Tebow at Florida.
That’s what NIU has to do this year however.
Over the past four years, Chandler Harnish rose from a red-shirt freshman who no one really knew what to expect from, to a conference MVP who completely re-wrote the team record book for offensive statistics and led NIU to its first MAC Championship in almost 30 years.
His numbers are staggering to look at:
Harnish was the undisputed leader of the 2011 Huskies. There were other great players around him, but there was no doubt that Harnish was the apex of the pyramid.
And now as Harnish moves on to the NFL, with the conference MVP title being eclipsed by the Mr. Irrelevant tag in the minds of many who had never heard of Harnish before draft day, NIU fans must also move on to next season. College football 2012 starts in almost exactly 2 months and Dave Doeren and co must begin the task of starting over. And the focus in the eyes of all NIU fans is now on the man who will step into Harnish’s place behind center and take command of the offense and team.
For many NIU fans, Jordan Lynch has been an enigma at some point during his time in DeKalb. There were moments when some wanted to see him moved to defensive back during his early years. There were shaky moments under center in practice that made some of the most dedicated fans pine for another option as a backup.
But during the past two seasons, Lynch settled into the role of back-up QB, who would occasionally come in to spell Harnish for a play or two, mostly for a designed QB run that would mean one less hit for Harnish to take, or in garbage time with the game already decided.
Lynch showed us some things in his limited playing time that some fans liked. He’s a better runner than Harnish, with a bit more speed and a few more moves. In a spread offense of the type NIU has run over the past few seasons, you should have a QB that can run if needed and there’s no doubt that Lynch can roll-out of the pocket and escape trouble if necessary. This may be more than necessary if an almost entirely new offensive line takes a few games to gel.
During these few glimpses of him on the field, Lynch really wasn’t given an opportunity to throw much. His two regular season TD passes have both in garbage time during blowouts, so it’s hard to measure his accuracy and poise in the pocket based on what we’ve seen outside of practice. The argument could be made that if Harnish hadn’t aggravated his ankle in the Godaddy.com bowl last January, Lynch’s poise as a QB would be even harder to determine.
But in that brief moment when it looked like Harnish would end his NIU career limping off the field, Lynch didn’t panic, didn’t hesitate to take command. In the one full drive he led during the bowl game against a very good Arkansas State defense, he drove the offense 78 yards in 7 plays, including a very nice 44-yard completion to Martel Moore.
Many of those initial fears began to lessen. Maybe Lynch really could be a good QB. With Harnish coming back onto the field shortly thereafter, fans never got to really see what Lynch could do behind center for an extended period, but that brief glimpse gave many fans hope for a future that they had been silently dreading.
In conference like the MAC, where teams have little to no chance to get the athletic freaks that the BCS schools attract with regularity, QB performance has become the chief element separating the great teams, the good teams, and the bad teams.
Over the past decade, the QBs that have won the MAC Championship include Byron Leftwich, Ben Roethlisberger, Bruce Gradkowski, Dan LeFeavour, and Harnish. Each one had an outstanding supporting cast of teammates around them, but the primary reason they won championships was because they played at such a high level.
Lynch will have to take the next step as Harnish did in 2010 and prove that he can carry the team on his shoulders and be the spark that fires the engine on offense. A team can’t win a conference championship on the strength of a running game or defense anymore. The best BCS teams can have an awesome defense filled with NFL quality players, the fastest running backs and receivers anyone has ever seen, but if their QB play is mediocre, they won’t win anything. Same goes for the MAC.
In the MAC, especially the MAC West, teams have to have quality at every position, but particularly at QB, to make it to Detroit. Toledo, Ball State, and Eastern Michigan all nearly beat NIU last year, and Western Michigan still has Alex Carder, who may be the best returning QB in the entire conference. Lynch will have to produce and produce immediately if NIU has any shot of returning to Detroit for the Championship game.
NIU’s current situation makes for an even cloudier initial prognosis than previous seasons. In 2010, fans knew the team could rely on Chad Spann to carry the ball and a stronger than average defense. Last year, fans knew the offense would be the team’s strength, even with an almost entirely new defense and new coaching staff coming in.
This year, things are a bit different. The defense has many starters returning, but what about the offense? NIU doesn’t have a Harnish, or a Spann, or even an offensive line to fall back on and say, “Oh, that will be okay. We won’t have to worry about that.” The only returning starters are likely to be offensive lineman Logan Pegram and receivers Martel Moore and Perez Ashford. More than anyone else, Lynch needs to step up at the beginning and prove that he can play QB at this level.
If Dave Doeren and new offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar are smart, they’ll try and keep Lynch from running as many QB draws as Harnish did in past seasons, but if no other options on offense materialize, they may not have a choice. Lynch’s best skills involve using his feet. His ability to create something out of nothing may be the only thing that keeps NIU in some games, just as Harnish did at points last year.
But if Lynch has to run more than 15 times a game, fans should hope that he doesn’t take a wrong step, or the dreaded turf monster swallows him up. NIU can’t afford to have Lynch injured. If he does, the QB situation as a whole is unknown beyond him.
Unlike Harnish, who had DeMarcus Grady as an experienced back-up in addition to Lynch for most of his career, Lynch’s current back-ups, Matt McIntosh and Devin Rose, are both red-shirt freshman who have never seen playing time. If Lynch is injured, NIU will have to rely on a QB that will be stepping into a real college game for the first time. This scenario is even worse than any NIU has faced since possibly 2007 when Dan Nicholson was injured and Ryan Morris was the only other QB on the roster that wasn’t a true freshman. And we all know how that ended up.
At the opening game at Soldier Field against Iowa, Lynch will have all of eyes on him. He will be the leader of the offense, the player who is most in control of NIU’s destiny for the 2012 season. Will he step up and reassume the figure of the disciplined, determined back-up who stepped into Harnish’s shoes during the bowl game and led the team down the field, or revert to the shaky form of previous seasons that made many NIU fans wonder if he could better serve the team at safety.
No one will know for sure until he steps onto the field in Chicago on September 1. But with so many other questions about the offense, and with expectations among NIU coaches and fans at an all-time high, Lynch needs to prove that he is capable of taking over for the greatest player in school history and lead NIU into the future.
He doesn’t have to be Chandler Harnish. It’s unlikely that NIU fans will ever see a QB as good as him for a long time to come. But if he can be Jordan Lynch and channel the poise and play-making abilities that made Harnish great, he can lead NIU to another MAC Championship.
The question is, can he and will he?