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Spring is in Full Swing

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After making my pre-spring football predictions a few weeks back I decided to let a few practices take place before commenting further.  Now that two practices are in the books, here goes.

For college football fans is this time of year great or what?  In spring football, as in MLB's spring training, hope springs eternal and anything is possible.  Every tidbit that leaks out about the roster, positional battles, the schedule, etc. is dissected and evaluated with eagerness as we look forward to the new team and new season. 

Speaking of Huskie football news, I have to give John Sahly and the Daily Chronicle major ups for their fantastic coverage of the Huskies.  A  newspaper story, a blog entry and a video interview every day, are you kidding me?!?!  I cannot recall this much coverage ever in the past and for a Huskie football junkie like me it's almost paradise, like unwrapping a new toy every day. 

Speaking of the recently released schedule, not bad.  The five day turnaround between the Akron and Eastern Michigan games is really unusual.  I cannot remember ever seeing such a thing at the college level.  The 5PM start for the Ball State game is odd too but that's life in an ESPN world.  Overall though the schedule is OK.  I'm looking forward to hearing the exciting news about future schedules hinted at by Athletic Director Jeff Compher in his recent chat session.  I predict we'll see a BCS school coming to Huskie Stadium and my leading candidates are Indiana, Colorado, Arizona and Iowa State.  Rationale?  Indiana is the only Big 10 school I can think of that would play in DeKalb because they don't draw that well at home so they wouldn't mind giving up a home game to get the Chicago-area recruiting exposure, and they wouldn't  draw a big crowd at Soldier Field.  They've also played at other MAC schools so there is precedent.  Colorado and Arizona have significantly stepped up recruiting in Chicago in recent years and they wouldn't draw at Soldier Field either.  Iowa State has played at Huskie Stadium before.  Let me know if you can think of other good candidates.      

This is off-topic, but here's some news I just found about former Huskie QB Billy Lowe.  You'll recall he transferred to Georgia Southern after one season at NIU and then left GSU after incurring a back injury (and learning former Ohio State QB Antonio Henton had also transferred to GSU).  Henton was the starter in '08 and had a fine season for GSU.  However, Henton is on the move once again, leaving GSU for greener pastures and Lowe is back with the team per this article:

It sounds like Billy is older and wiser these days.  Here's hoping his back holds up and he enjoys a successful career at GSU.

Back to the current Huskies.  I've still seen no indication of the coaches' thinking regarding the middle linebacker positionZach LarsenJohn TranchitellaPhil BrownPat Schiller?  Someone else?  Hopefully something comes out in the next few days.  My super-duper wildcard idea for Maurice Coon at middle linebacker obviously won't be happening as Coon has left the program.  Bummer, but life goes on.  It will be interesting to see what position Coon plays at his new school.  I have a hunch he'll end up on offense. 

It looks like there's a three man race for two positions on the offensive line between Panan Tense, Kevin Skatrud and Tony Holmes with Skatrud being tried at both guard and tackle.  Given the news that Skatrud is working at tackle I have a hunch your starters will be Tense and Skatrud but it could end up being any combination of those three.  I guess the good news is they can't really go wrong and they'll have two good players in there regardless of the combination. 

I heard Chad Spann got the first carry in practice the other day and that makes sense since he was the starter at the end of last season.  It sounds like Justin Anderson is coming back with renewed vigor after not playing much last season so he could make it interesting.  As I think about our current running backs it seems like we have two guys who can grind out the tough yards in Chad Spann and Justin Anderson, and two speed/finesse guys in Meco Brown and Ricky Crider

Here's my evaluation of each individual with their complementary strengths:

  • Chad Spann: Spann is our best power back, a relentless and tenacious runner.  His style is fitting for a guy who arrived on campus as a walkon and proceeded to earn a scholarship and a place in the lineup within weeks.    Watch the Independence Bowl again for a great example as he ground out some incredibly tough yards.  Spann seems to lack the top gear of some of the others and has had limited opportunities to catch the ball but overall he is a very tough and reliable back.
  • Justin Anderson: Anderson is by far our biggest back but his shifty running style is not prototypical of a large back.  He has shown the ability to wear down defenses and get his yards even when defenses are loading up the box, as he did in gaining 1.245 yards rushing in 2007.  I should say he has this ability IF GIVEN ENOUGH CARRIES.    Eventually he will break a long run but it doesn't happen in the 5 to 10 carries he got last year.  Anderson also has great hands and the ability to get downfield in the pattern.  He would be a great option  this year as the coaches have stated a desire to work the middle more in the passing game. 
  • Ricky Crider: Crider is our best home run threat with the ability to take it to the house if given a seam.  He played very well in last year's Navy game when given the start but unfortunately didn't get many carries as they had to go away from the run to play catchup.  He is kind of the opposite of Spann with less power but more speed.  As with Spann, Crider has had limited opportunities to catch the ball.  He has the ability to be a successful feature back if given the opportunity.   Crider has also developed nicely as a kick returner and could be a real threat there in the next two seasons. 
  • Meco Brown: Brown has a good overall combination of skills.  He has a cutback/change of direction running style similar to a Barry Sanders or, dare I say it, Garrett Wolfe.  He is the smallest of the four backs yet packs decent power for his size.  He has pretty good speed but has not quite yet shown the home run ability of Ricky Crider.  He has also demonstrated good hands in limited opportunties to catch the ball.  Although he seemed to hit the wall late in the '08 season Brown did a tremendous job for a true freshman playing D-1 ball and has significant upside potential.  A little-known fact about Brown is that the head coach of Ole Miss Ed Orgeron (now D-Line coach at Tennessee) referred to Brown as "Little Reggie Bush" during the recruiting process and planned to offer him before being fired.  Their loss is our gain and Brown was a terrific late pickup for our coaching staff with their first recruiting class.         

It's a problem figuring out what to do with all of these good backs, a problem many, many teams wish they had as I believe each guy is good enough to be the feature back if the coaches choose to go that way.  In lieu of someone rising head and shoulders above the others, which is unlikely, I suggest we use all four of them. The one clear benefit of playing so many guys is that we should always, always have fresh legs in there.  How about this for a rotation?  Pound away at the defense in the first half and into the third quarter with Spann and Anderson.  Just give the defense a steady diet of these guys slamming it up in there.  Then as the defense starts to tire in the second half start mixing in Brown and Crider to see if we can hit some home runs.  It's a little unconventional but that's where we are with this group.  Certainly unconventional for NIU anyway, where we've usually had one guy gaining most of the yards.  Here's a look back at the leading rushers of this decade:

2008 Total Rushing Yards:  2,226

2008 Top Rushers:  Chandler Harnish - 539, Meco Brown - 510, Chad Spann - 429, Justin Anderson - 209, Ricky Crider - 208, DeMarcus Grady - 188

2007 Total Rushing Yards: 1,626

2007 Top Rusher: Justin Anderson - 1,245


2006 Total Rushing Yards: 2,142

2006 Top Rusher: Garrett Wolfe - 1,928


2005 Total Rushing Yards: 2,480

2005 Top Rushers: Garrett Wolfe - 1,580, Adrian Davis - 463, AJ Harris - 351


2004 Total Rushing Yards: 2,858

2004 Top Rushers: Garrett Wolfe - 1,656, AJ Harris - 822


2003 Total Rushing Yards: 1,920

2003 Top Rushers: Michael Turner - 1,738


2002 Total Rushinig Yards: 2,409

2002 Top Rushers: Michael Turner - 1,915


2001 Total Rushing Yards: 1,589

2001 Top Rushers: Thomas Hammock - 1,096, Michael Turner - 395


As you can see, 2008 was not bad from a total yards standpoint as compared to other years but too many of those yards were picked up by our quarterbacks.  I don't mind a QB gaining 500 yards but there's no way he should be the leading rusher.  With all of the running talent on the roster I think the coaches should challenge them (the whole offense) to gain over 3,000 yards rushing on the season with the quarterbacks gaining 400 yards or less of that total.  I welcome your input on my suggestions for the running game.