With most of the 2017 Northern Illinois University football team enrolled in summer school and on campus since mid-June, 102 Huskies officially “reported” for 2017 preseason practices Monday.
The Huskies take the field for the first time Tuesday morning at 5:30 a.m. (CT) in the first of four practices over the first two weeks that will be held in the early morning hours due to summer school classes.
“We’re ready to get started,” Carey said. “The team has been here working out all summer and they want to play football. The coaches are ready to get on the field with these players and work. It’s always exciting when you’re starting a new season with a clean slate and you have competition at every position.”
NIU returns 50 letterwinners and 15 starters off the 2016 team that won four of its last five games to finish 5-7 on the year. NIU returns eight players who started at least six games on defense, including 2015 All-American cornerback Shawun Lurry (W. Palm Beach, Fla./W.T. Dwyer), a Jim Thorpe Award and Bronko Nagurski Trophy watch-lister, who spent much of last season banged up.
Up front, senior defensive tackle William Lee (Indianapolis, Ind./Arsenal Tech) has started 28 of the 40 games he has played in his Huskie career, while defensive end Josh Corcoran (Lakeville, Minn./Lakeville South) ranked second on the team in tackles for loss with seven as a sophomore in 2016.
Bobby Jones IV (Miami Gardens, Fla./Monsignor Pace) leads a young linebacking corps that features just one other senior (Alex Schwab) and one junior (Jawuan Johnson) to go with nine underclassmen.
The Huskies’ 5-3 record in the Mid-American Conference a year ago came despite starting four different players at quarterback during the year due to injury for the second season in a row. NIU opens 2017 with a quarterback question as three players came out of spring practices in position to win the starting job. The most experienced among those is redshirt junior Ryan Graham (Wheaton, Ill./Wheaton Warrenville South), with eight starts in 18 appearances over the last two years. Redshirt sophomore Daniel Santacaterina (Geneva, Ill./Geneva) closed out the 2016 campaign with a win over Kent State in his first career start as he played in the final three games of the season, while redshirt freshman Marcus Childers (Adairsville, Ga./Adairsville) came on strong late in spring ball to enter the fray.
“We’ve been 11-5 in the league with five different quarterbacks over the last two years,” Carey said. “It’s not bad but it’s not what we want. We’re going to do what we do and tackle it one day at a time. Santacaterina and Ryan Graham have both started games for us, and Marcus Childers got into the mix coming out of spring. I want one guy to take it. Would you like that to happen in August, sure. Will it, I don’t know.
The offensive line returns three starters off the group that tied for the national lead in fewest sacks allowed, giving up just eight on the year. Junior Max Scharping (Green Bay, Wis./Southwest HS) moves from right to left tackle, Luke Shively (Tipton, Ind./Tipton) returns for his second season under center and Jordan Steckler (Two Rivers, Wis./Two Rivers) fills one of the guard spots.
Senior Jordan Huff (Mobile, Ala./St. Paul’s Episcopal) is the Huskies’ most experienced returning running back and has averaged an impressive 6.9 yards per carry on 206 totes in 37 games during his NIU career.
The receiving corps features the return of Chad Beebe (Aurora, Ill./Aurora Christian) for his senior season, along with returning, and experienced, upperclassmen Christian Blake (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla./Cardinal Gibbons), D.J. Brown (North Little Rock, Ark./North Little Rock) and Ezra Saffold (W. Palm Beach, Fla./W.T. Dwyer).
Carey, who ranks fourth all-time at NIU in coaching victories, begins his fifth season at the helm of the Huskie program with a “back to basics” approach as the Huskies focus on improving each day and meeting the expectations the team itself has set.
“Last year wasn’t good enough and we have no qualms about saying that,” Carey said. “Now, can we learn from that? We have a lot of guys coming back that have played a lot of football here. That doesn’t guarantee success, all it does is give you an opportunity. I think maybe out of some of the situations that happened last year, we played even more guys [than usual]. There’s good competition and that’s part of what it takes to become a good football team.”