The Northern Illinois University Huskies closed out 2018 spring practices with a 75-minute practice Saturday at Huskie Stadium that included individual drills, special teams as well as several periods of 11-on-11 work in front of a crowd of approximately 1,000 fans.
Following the practice, which followed a similar format to each of the previous 13 workouts of the spring, NIU Head Coach Rod Carey said the 2018 spring was one of the best in his tenure in terms of skill development.
“In the skill development part, I think it has been [one of the best springs],” Carey said. “We still have work to do. All that this spring does is gives us an opportunity to do more work and that gives us a chance to be successful. I feel good about it.”
Two of the areas of concentration this spring were the offensive line, where a host of young players are challenging the five returning starters for playing time, and at quarterback, where Carey and company were looking for more consistency from returning starter and 2017 MAC Freshman of the Year Marcus Childers (Adairsville, Ga./Adairsville HS), as well as the development of young back-ups Rodney Hall (Detroit, Mich./Cass Tech) and Anthony Thompson.
“The focus [coming into spring] was O-line and quarterback,” Carey said. “Those are the two areas we needed to get better at in terms of skill development. Marcus [Childers] had a good year [in 2017] for a freshman, and I’ll just qualify it like that. It’s nice to have a guy [at quarterback] that’s set. He had a good spring practice and really developed, and Anthony Thompson (Chicago, Ill./Mount Carmel) had a whale of a spring too, really developing in that back-up role.”
“The O-line, as a group, we needed to make a step there. With everyone back we were able to do that and get some cohesion going that way, so I was pleased with that. I think those guys took steps individually as well.”
The team periods on Saturday saw the young players get nearly all the reps as Hall and Thompson were under center during most of the team sessions. Thompson’s completion on a short swing pass to receiver Jordan Nettles (Romeoville, Ill./Romeoville HS), who took it almost 77 yards to the three-yard line, highlighted the team sessions, while Tre Harbison (Shelby, N.C./Crest HS) and Jordan Rowell (Elmhurst, Ill./Immaculate Conception) also showed burst and speed during the earlier periods.
“I liked the way the backs went about things,” Carey said. “Overall, we held out several guys today, and really quite a bit this spring, but what that allowed us to do is get the young guys a lot of work. Some young guys, have really stepped up and we’ve seen the development which has been good. We focused a lot on improving on an individual basis this spring and that’s going to make us better this fall.”
Among the young guys who developed this spring were a quartet of defensive players in defensive end Mike Kennedy (Chicago, Ill./Mount Carmel) and linebackers Danny Walker (Wheaton, Ill./Wheaton North HS), Jordan Cole (Ferguson, Mo./McCluer-South Berkeley HS) and Rayshawn Gay (Maywood, Ill./Proviso East HS), while Carey liked what he saw from veteran Antonio Jones-Davis (Vero Beach, Fla./Vero Beach HS). NIU lost all three of its starting linebackers from a year ago, but will see the return of veteran Kyle Pugh (Chicago Heights, Ill./Bloom Township), who was injured early in the season in 2017 and was limited during spring ball this year.
“Antonio Jones-Davis, he’s not a young guy anymore, he’s played a lot of football, he had a really fantastic spring,” Carey said. “He was flying around, really communicating and doing things well.”
On the final play of spring practice, NIU inserted a “secret weapon” into the backfield as 12-year old Tyler Neppl, a native of Sycamore who has a genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis, got the opportunity to run the ball in for a touchdown, escorted by Childers and the entire Huskie team.
“Tyler Neppl is a kid who has been dealt a raw hand, but you would never know it from [being around] him,” Carey said. “He is an unbelievable kid and has a great attitude. He’s been out to a bunch of practices. We’ve gotten to know him and we just thought what a great opportunity to run the ball. I think he had a great time with it. The whole team had fun with it too.”