NIU football: Four observations from Tuesday’s first spring practice

Northern Illinois University quarterback Ethan Hampton throws a pass to receiver Dane Pardridge Tuesday, March 26, 2024, during spring practice in the Chessick Practice Center at NIU in Dekalb.

DEKALB – Football is officially in the air on the Northern Illinois University campus.

NIU held its first spring practice Tuesday morning at Chessick Practice Center. Head coach Thomas Hammock felt that the team performed efficiently for the first practice of the spring session.

“I thought guys were moving around a lot for their first time in a practice setting,” Hammock said. “I was pleased with the tempo, the pacing and how guys executed. We didn’t have a lot of guys sitting on the ground just watching which is what you look for in those first couple of days

Let the battle for QB1 begin

The question of who’ll be under center when the offense hits the field Aug. 31 against Western Illinois has been on the minds of Huskies fans since the end of last season.

Hammock didn’t provide any indication during Monday’s press conference ahead of the first practice. Hammock said that the position was wide open between the six quarterbacks on the roster, and that he “is in no rush to make a decision.”

Tuesday din’t provide many more hints. The Huskies went with redshirt junior Ethan Hampton with the first-team offense and defense for most of his reps on the day. Hampton is coming off a season where he appeared in four games, throwing for 147 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.

After him, University of Arkansas Pine-Bluff transfer Jalen Macon, redshirt freshman Josh Holst and JUCO transfer Kenny Leuth each got reps under center in scrimmage play. Redshirt sophomore Nevan Cremascoli also got one round at the helm, but not until the final scrimmage of the practice.

Hampton, who has the most experience among the returners after filling in for then-starter Rocky Lombardi while he was injured last season, said that he welcomes the competition.

“It’s what I live for, and that’s what you’ve got to have to play football at this level,” Hampton said. “You’ve got to be a competitor, and you can’t shy away from that. So as the spring unfolds, I’m excited to see what we can do.”

New faces (and numbers) on the wide receiver side

Whoever takes over the quarterback room by the start of the season, one thing was made clear in the first practice: they’ll have plenty of new weapons at the receiver position.

Leading the charge during practice at the position was Trayvon Rudolph, who led the Huskies in receiving last season with 51 catches for 531 yards and two touchdowns.

But lining up besides him on the line to start practice was Pine Bluffs transfer Kenji Lewis and redshirt freshman Kyle Thomas, who was sporting a No. 10 on his jersey at practice after wearing No. 24 last season.

In his first season at NIU, Thomas only appeared in three games and had three catches for 62 yards. He also had a rushing attempt go for 3 yards. Hammock said that Thomas is coming off a tremendous offseason and is someone that could make an impact in 2024.

After the first run through though, Lewis had his helmet off and was only on the field to help field balls or catch during quarterback drills. In his place, Keyshaun Pipken took snaps against the first-team corners.

The receivers had about every player see the field during the scrimmage, with the only exception being redshirt freshman Christopher Gore, who wasn’t in pads for Tuesday’s practice.

Filling in the linebacker depth

After losing three of their top four linebackers from last season, NIU went to the transfer portal to try and find an answer. There they found Southeast Missouri transfer Christian Fuhrman, who Hammock had line up right beside senior Jaden Dolphin in first-team reps.

“We recruited (Fuhrman) with the intention that he would walk in and be a starter,” Hammock said, “so I’m anxious to watch the tape and see how he did.”

In the second rotation, the Huskies went with Batavia native Quinn Urwiler and redshirt sophomore Jake Gassaway at the linebacker spots. Isaac Hatfield, Joey Rattin and Marc Pretto each were rotated into the positions through the day.

Who’s at running back?

One of the big questions heading into spring practices was how much we would see of star running back Antario Brown.

If his first practice showed anything, it was clear that he’d be there, but wouldn’t be running a whole lot.

The senior, who had 1,348 total yards and 11 touchdowns last season, spent most of the scrimmage lining up besides the quarterback and only fired off a few runs.

Instead, most of the runs were taken by the backup running backs. Gavin Williams, who was RB No. 2 last season, took a majority of the running plays during throughout the rotations. Justin Lynch, who transferred in from Temple prior to the 2023 season, and redshirt freshman Jaylen Poe also got their fair share of carries throughout the practice as well.

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