NIU football: Transfer Jalen Macon in middle of quarterback battle

Northern Illinois University quarterback Jalen Macon carries the ball Tuesday, March 26, 2024, during spring practice in the Chessick Practice Center at NIU.

DeKALB – When Jalen Macon decided to leave Arkansas-Pine Bluff and take his chances in the transfer portal he said he knew where he wanted to land.

One trip to Northern Illinois University made it official.

“I kind of knew where I was going,” Macon said after practice Tuesday. “Once I came here on a visit, everything was good. NIU checked all the boxes. The connection was there. The relationships were all there.

“It kind of felt like a no-brainer.”

Now the junior quarterback is with the Huskies, going through spring drills trying to make his mark at the quarterback position.

With three-year starter Rocky Lombardi graduated, there’s an open competition for the spot. Coach Thomas Hammock said there are three quarterbacks who have separated themselves from the group – although he won’t say which three.

In terms of playing time and snaps, junior Ethan Hampton and Macon likely are among the three Hammock is talking about. The two have taken a majority of the snaps for the Huskies during spring ball, with Hampton usually the first one in and running mostly with the first-team offense.

The third quarterback could be freshman Josh Holst from Marengo, as he’s usually the third in and generally has seen more snaps than sophomore Nevan Cremascoli, junior Idaho transfer CJ Jordan and junior American River Community College transfer Kenny Lueth.

And that was before Cremascoli announced Wednesday he was entering the transfer portal.

“I do believe we have three guys that are kind of separating themselves in the competition,” Hammock said. “But this is really a three-phase thing for us. You’ve got spring ball, you got summer where we can go back and watch spring ball, reteach some things, and then you’ve got fall camp. This is just the first stage of the evaluation process. We do feel like we have three guys that we can win with, and we’ll give those guys every opportunity to compete, give them as many reps as possible to get in ready to play and see how it unfolds in training camp.”

Macon said he’s still trying to get caught up in the system and fine-tune his role. But he said he’s been impressed with how flexible the NIU offense is, whether it’s a run-first attack with Antario Brown or a break-it-over-the-top approach with receivers like Trayvon Rudolph.

“We kind of do everything here,” Macon said. “We’re not just focused on one thing. We can really do it all: pass, throw, spread it out, condense – anything and everything.”

Macon played in 10 games over two seasons with the Lions, completing 63% of his passes with five touchdowns and four interceptions. He threw for 937 yards.

Hammock said Macon is a project with high upside – an upside that’s already starting to show after barely three months in DeKalb.

“He’s gotten better since he’s been here,” Hammock said. “When he first got here he had to learn what it takes to be at an FBS program – the work ethic, the commitment, the time, especially playing the quarterback position. He’s really taken a hold of that, put in the effort, put in the work to get better.”

Hampton has played 11 games over his career, usually as an injury replacement for Lombardi. He’s completed 58% of his passes for 968 yards, nine touchdowns and eight interceptions. He’s 0-4 as a starter in his career.

The Aurora Christian grad said last year the defense was continually helping the offense. The defense ended up highly ranked nationally and helped power the Huskies to their first bowl win since the 2011 season.

Hampton said he’s enjoying the competition for the starting job.

“I’m the same guy I have been since the day I walked in this building,” Hampton said. “I think it’s really important to bring these guys along, and as a leader that’s my job. I love the competition, I love the whole quarterback room. They bring the best out of me, and we bring the best out of each other. As the spring unfolds, I couldn’t be more happy with where we’re at.”

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