Size dominates NIU’s early signing class

Triad's tackle Lane Mahnesmith (75) in action during the class 5A second round playoff game against Joliet Catholic Academy on Saturday, Nov. 04, 2023, at Joliet. (Dean Reid for Shaw Local News Network)

At 6-foot-8 and 320 pounds, Lane Mahnesmith is the tallest NIU football player, and only three Huskies weigh more. And he hasn’t spent a second with NIU trainers or in the school’s training facilities.

The offensive lineman out of Troy Triad was one of 18 players the Huskies announced in their early signing class Wednesday. And it isn’t just Mahnesmith who brings size to the program.

The Huskies also inked 6-foot-8, 290-pound offensive lineman Ben Gustafson from Elkhorn, Nebraska. Lance Ingold, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound defensive lineman, also signed.

NIU coach Thomas Hammock said Gustafson and Mahnesmith bring depth to the tackle position and can be long-term bookends at the position, especially with Nolan Potter graduating this year and Evan Buss graduating next year.

“Lane is a ginormous young man,” Hammock said. “He’s really slimmed down, playing basketball right now. ... We wanted to address tackle in the last two recruiting classes and make sure we establish our tackles moving forward. Evan Malcore did a phenomenal job this year, so that gives us a chance to buy some time with young players.”

The signing class also included two more quarterbacks. While Rocky Lombardi is set to play his last game for the Huskies in Saturday’s Camellia Bowl against Arkansas State, there are still five other quarterbacks on the roster.

All five are either freshmen or sophomores this year, and only Ethan Hampton has seen playing time this year, although redshirt freshman Nevan Cremascoli played some in 2022.

Joining the crowded room will be Luke Marble from Smyrna, Georgia, and Kenny Leuth from Rocklin, California, Leuth is a junior transfer from American River Community College.

Given how the Huskies went through quarterbacks in 2022 – injuries to the top three players necessitated Cremascoli playing as a true freshman – too many players isn’t an issue, Hammock said.

“You want to have enough competition in the room and the best guy will play,” Hammock said. “That’s something we want to address and something we want to get better at. ... Some guys develop the way you think, some guys don’t. That’s recruiting. Recruiting is not an exact science and you don’t hit on every player you sign. But what you don’t want to happen is not enough competition because what if the first two guys go down?”

The class is loaded on the lines, with four offensive linemen, three defensive linemen and 6-6, 225-pound tight end Joe Stein from Grand Island, Nebraska. Ahmir Smith from Santee, South Carolina, is the only running back. There are two receivers and both have height, the 6-2 George Dimopoulos from Crystal Lake Central and the 6-4 La’Don Bryant out of Savannah, Georgia.

The group also features two cornerbacks, two safeties and two linebackers.

Hammock said there are 25 seniors projected to be on the Huskies’ roster next year, necessitating the need for a bigger signing class. He said giving them this extra year to develop behind that group will bode well for them moving forward, pointing to redshirt freshman Amariyun Knightley and Jacob Finley, who became big parts of the NIU secondary this year as it rose from one of the worst to one of the best in the Mid-American Conference.

Hammock said there was competition in recruiting guys like East St. Louis safety Taylor Powell and Kenwood defensive lineman Ivan Moore Jr. He said he feels some schools are sleeping on high school recruits in favor of looking to the transfer portal.

“I think what’s happening now is people are not doing their homework,” Hammock said. “They make mistakes and then think, ‘OK, we can go correct mistakes in the portal.’ But Taylor is a young man, if you did your homework and did your research, is a 6-3, 195-pound safety that has great range and great ball skills.”

Hammock said there are a couple of players still to be announced from the early signing period.

The second signing day is Feb. 7. Traditionally, the Huskies have used that period to announce walk-ons, and Hammock said there should be a big group coming in then, as well. Hammock said the team will announce portal transfers when school starts in January.

George DimopoulosWR6-2190Crystal Lake (Central)
Dashaun GibsonCB6-2180Manassas, Virginia
Ben GustafsonOL6-8290Elkhorn, Nebraska
Lance IngoldDL6-7230Rochester
Lane MahnesmithOL6-8320Troy (Troy-Triad)
Luke MarbleQB6-3190Smyrna, Georgia
KJ McRaeLB6-3210Covington, Georgia
Aiden OlsonOL6-4285Clinton, Wisconsin
AJ GuidaLB6-2210Highlands Ranch, Colorado
Dev’ion ReynoldsCB6-1180Zion (Carmel Catholic)
Ivan Moore Jr.DL6-4220Chicago (Kenwood)
Taylor PowellS6-4190Belleville (East St. Louis)
Grey RumohrOL6-5295Wales, Wisconsin
La’Don BryantWR6-4195Savannah, Georgia
Ahmir SmithRB5-10195Santee, South Carolina
Joe SteinTE6-6225Grand Island, Nebraska
Adrian ThomasS6-2180Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Kenny LeuthQB6-4220Rocklin, California (American River Community College)
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