NIU football: 3 things NOT to expect at the Huskies’ spring showcase

Northern Illinois University football head coach Thomas Hammock talks to receiver Kenji Lewis Tuesday, March 26, 2024, during spring practice in the Chessick Practice Center at NIU.

The NIU spring football season comes to an end Saturday with the annual Spring Showcase, the 15th and final practice the Huskies will hold.

Open to the public, the practice will start at noon at Huskie Stadium. If there’s rain, the showcase will be inside the Chessick Center.

At this point, we know what we expected at the start of camp and how things stood at the one-third and two-thirds marks. So in the spirit of changing things up, here are three things we WON’T see Saturday.

A spring game

Coach Thomas Hammock was asked after the Huskies’ 13th practice Tuesday if he was looking for anything different from the team Saturday in the slightly different atmosphere.

He simply answered no.

After a beat, he went on to explain the team has put the work in going into Saturday, and even though there will be fans and recruits in attendance, the Huskies aren’t going to beat themselves up to prove a point.

In the past under Hammock, the showcase generally has followed the same structure as a regular practice, maybe with a slightly stronger emphasis on full-team drills.

But whereas spring games have become massive TV events and in-person draws at the Power Five level, NIU keeps the focus on a standard 15th practice.

An answer at quarterback

This isn’t coming Saturday. It’s probably not coming until whenever kickoff is Aug. 31 against Western Illinois in the season opener.

Hammock said there are three quarterbacks he feels have separated themselves from the pack. He hasn’t even named those three, although if playing time is an indication, it’s Ethan Hampton, Josh Holst and Jalen Macon.

Hampton is the incumbent, having started four games in his career in relief of Rocky Lombardi, who has graduated. Holst seemingly has moved up the depth chart. After spending early parts of the spring as the third quarterback in, on Tuesday he came in ahead of Macon.

Macon was the third one in Tuesday. Some of the worst plays came from him, as did some of the best during his up-and-down day. He was intercepted by Amariyun Knighten and sacked by Devonte O’Malley, but he also threw a beautiful 30-yard pass to Jalen Johnson.

So we’ll see all three Saturday. We just won’t know who’s going to be starting against Western Illinois. And that question probably isn’t going away anytime soon.

A complacent defense

NIU was 23rd in total defense nationally last year, allowing 319.5 yards per game.

Hammock said with nine starters back, the defense has fought hard to keep its edge and never get complacent. He said the physicality of practices has been a bright spot.

While three of the top five tacklers from last year have graduated, the top two – Ray Thomas and Jaden Dolphin – will be back for 2024. Linebacker Christian Fuhrman comes in from Southeast Missouri State to handle a lot of the load Tyler Jackson shouldered last year.

All five players who had an interception last season (O’Malley, JaVaughn Byrd, Muhammad Jammeh, Nate Valcarcel and Cyrus McGarrell) return this year. Of the six players who had more than one sack, Ray Thomas, O’Malley, Neveah Sanders and Roy Williams return.

The defense had 27 quarterback hurries last year, and players who combined for 16 of them are back.

Pick a defensive metric, any metric, and the Huskies probably are overflowing with talent. And they’re hungry to show they’re even better than last year.

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