Last week, we wrote about how NIU has been a particularly unlikely mid-major power. To help us better understand the specifics of what makes the Huskies great, especially for next season, we chatted with Norman Miller at the Hustle Belt. Here's what he had to say:
1) NIU has had an epic run over the last several seasons, despite replacing multiple coaches, not having much recruiting money, or the highest ranked recruits. Has NIU able to step up any structural improvements to the program to help keep it competitive in the long haul, and how have they been able to be so good, even when on paper, they don't seem to have a ton of advantages?
The job NIU football has done over the last five years has been truly remarkable. It's true that their athletic budget is small, their stadium is old, and their fan attendance is average. Yet Huskie coaches have been able to sell the program to recruits based on other factors. A lot of it centering around a football family atmosphere.
The recruiters do an excellent job at pinpointing exactly what players they want. They don't throw out a ton of offers and see what sticks. They have a formula that works and they stick to it. Recruit big offensive linemen in big offensive linemen country. The midwest. Wisconsin especially. With a hot bed of large bodies up this way, there's plenty of quality linemen who seem to fall through the cracks. When they do, NIU jumps on them. They use that same notion at the skill positions, but turn to the south for players. Florida seems to have more fast guys than just about anywhere. The Huskies hit that area hard. Especially at Wide receiver. That's been the process up until now and it's worked. But as the program continues to succeed, the amenities are beginning to improve.
Starting in 2007, the Huskies added the Yordon Center. A 62,000-square foot facility for student athletes to develop physically as well as academically. Then in 2013, the Chessick Practice Center was added. An 80,600-square foot indoor football practice facility. But the best may be yet to come. In 2014, Athletic Director Sean Frazier introduced the NIU Athletics Facilities Master Plan. A $138 million renovation plan which could nearly double Huskie stadium seating capacity to 42,000. It would also upgrade, modernize and otherwise improve the outdated stadium among other things.
I won't speculate on exactly what the real hopes of NIU athletics may be to the AD, but with far better facilities, a recent history of sustained success, as well as newly found brand recognition with the NIU name, I'd say the Huskies best days may be ahead of them.
2) If you were explaining Drew Hare to folks who haven't watched him, what he is particularly good at?
NIU fans are still trying to define exactly what Drew Hare is. On one hand, he rushed for 900 yards and 8 touchdowns last season. But on the other hand, he looked a little like an upright lizard running on his back legs while doing it. He's not especially graceful. Hare also threw for 2,300+ yards and 18 touchdowns in 2014. Yet his deep ball accuracy is questionable and he possesses only average arm strength. His tangible qualities do not really jump out at you.
What Drew Hare does do well is minimize mistakes. With only two interceptions all of last season, Hare rarely was the reason for the Huskies' failures. He may not have outright won games for you, but he didn't lose them either. He has a real nice feel for the game and makes good decisions. He doesn't force many passes and wisely picks his spots when to tuck it and run. With surprising success I might add. He's not especially fast or elusive, but he finds the openings. Hare has all the intangibles you like in a quarterback. He's smart, he's tough, and he wins. I'm expecting a much improved Drew Hare this year.
3) Looks like NIU is replacing a lot on their line. How might that impact their scheme next season, and who do they have to replace the departed?
The offensive line will be replacing three seasoned veterans in left tackle Tyler Loos, left guard Tyler Pitt and right tackle Ryan Brown. Loos, recently signed by the Cleveland Browns as an undrafted free agent, will be the hardest of the three to replace.
That job most likely will fall to last years back up at left tackle, red-shirt junior Levon Myers (6-foot-5, 299-pounds). Myers played in all 14 games last season and may be a slight drop-off in quality from Loos. Red-shirt junior Josh Ruka (6-foot-5, 305 pounds) and red-shirt junior Lincoln Howard (6-foot-5, 301 pounds) will replace Pitt and Brown respectively. Both have experience and should be fine.
Since the left side of the line will be featuring two new starters, NIU may run the ball a little more than they'd like to versus the Buckeyes. That's saying a lot since they had the fifth most rushing attempts in the FBS last season. But the Huskies have committed to Drew Hare being their guy, and getting him steam rolled on his blind side in Columbus is not a good way to show it. At least not early on in the contest. They'll most likely have to open it up and throw in the second half if things are getting away from them.
As I mentioned before, the deep ball really isn't a big part of NIU's offense. So Hare should still be able to run most of the regular pass attack which consists of quick, short throws. They'll just have to stay out of third and long to have any success and to minimize any short comings of a line that may lack cohesiveness so early in the season.
4) Who is one player on defense that Ohio State fans should be aware of at this point in the offseason?
One player I have big expectations for this season is junior linebacker Sean Folliard (6-foot-2, 230-pounds). Folliard moved from a little used middle linebacker as a true freshman, to a major contributor on the outside as a sophomore. He is a good athlete with the ability to work through traffic, find the ball carrier, and secure the tackle. He also has enough speed to help out in coverage as well as blitz the quarterback. Look for #40, Sean Folliard to be around the ball a lot this season.
5) What is the honest expectation for this year? Win the MAC, win 10 games, something more?
While NIU should be a slightly improved team this, especially on offense, they have a tougher schedule than last year's eleven win team. The MAC had a bit of a down year in 2014 and the Huskies caught a few teams at the right time. So the division title should go down to the last weekend once again. I'm expecting a 10 win season and similar success to 2014. Not the kind of success we saw in 2012 and 2013.
6) What is your response to somebody who looks at recruiting rankings and thinks that eventually, WMU will be able to pass the program?
NIU has mastered the art of two star recruiting. I covered how they've been so good at the top. What's equally important though is sustaining that success. With MAC success comes MAC coaching poaching. NIU's formula seems to be somewhat coach-proof to a point. So while there's no doubt Western Michigan has had an incredible recruiting run (that is yet to make for an actual incredible season), they're going to find the conundrum of success. If Western wins the MAC and shows well in a bowl, then that former NIU receiver turned smarmy charming Bronco coach, he's long gone to a bigger program.
Western Michigan will be formidable this year no doubt. Time will tell if it's the program or just the coach who's responsible for their ascent. Can Western stay at a top level with a new coach? At NIU it's the program that leads to success. In the college football world, that's where I prefer to build my foundation.