DEKALB, Ill. (WTVO/WQRF) — Take the two best players off any football team at any level, and that team is going to feel the impact. The Northern Illinois University Huskies lost their two most valuable players last year to injury, quarterback Rocky Lombardi and receiver Trayvon Rudolph, and the team spiraled downward in the MAC. Now both are back and ready to lead an NIU resurgence.

The coaches at NIU won’t ever use injuries as an excuse, but losing Lombardi and Rudolph last year were major factors in NIU slipping from MAC champions the year before to last in the MAC West last year. 

Rudolph never played in a game. He went down with a knee injury early in August camp.
Lombardi played in four games before suffering a season-ending injury against Vanderbilt. Both men have been full-go in practices all this month, and they’ll be ready to go for the opener at Boston College.

Rudolph is more than convinced that he’ll be the same explosive player whom we saw on the field two years ago.

“I’m going to be better. I’m going to be even better just trying to show the people what they missed last season and what I still have in my bag.”

In 2021 Rudolph was named second team All-MAC as a receiver and as a kick returner. He led NIU in receptions, in receiving touchdowns and in all-purpose yards. Against Kent State he set NIU and MAC records with 309 yards receiving. Against Bowling Green he had a 100-yard kick return. He was the ultimate big-play threat.

Now that he’s back, he has big goals.

“Take my team back to another championship, go to another bowl game, but also my personal goals, lead the MAC in receiving yards, lead the MAC in touchdowns.”

Two years ago Lombardi led the Huskies in total offense while leading them to the MAC Title. In the Kent State game, he set a school record when he passed for 532 yards. Right now, Lombardi is just enjoying and appreciating his health and being able to play again.

“It’s really exciting. There was a time when I didn’t know if I was going to be able to make it back and play or get an extra year. Now I’m sitting here at 100 percent feeling great, so I’m blessed, and I’m really excited for the season.”

Because of the extra COVID season and medical redshirt seasons, this is Lombardi’s seventh year in college football between his time at Michigan State and at NIU. At age 25, he’s a bit older than his teammates.

So, do his teammates call him “grandpa” in the locker room?
“There’s some nicknames. Some appropriate for TV, some not, but yeah, there’s definitely some jokes about being old.”

Lombardi and Rudolph could be the best passing combination in the MAC this season. Lombardi says Rudolph looks as good as new.

“He looks really good. He’s been running good routes. He’s got his top speed back.”

What’s the dream ending for Rocky Lombardi at NIU now in his final season?

“A MAC championship and a historic season. I think we’ve got a great team here. I think we can do things that very few teams have done here at NIU, so the dream ending is to be considered one of the best, if not the best football team to ever come through here.”

NOTE: The NIU Huskies will open their season Saturday, September 2 at Boston College.