NIU spring football practices are over. Here’s what we learned

Northern Illinois University Nate Valcarcel helps the defense during practice on Saturday March 30, 2024, held at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.

The NIU football team ran over to the sideline after Saturday’s Spring Showcase and serenaded fans with a rendition of the school’s fight song, as per tradition.

And with that, the spring season ended for the Huskies.

There are some things we didn’t find out – most notably the starter at quarterback. Ethan Hampton, Jalen Macon and Josh Holst appear to be the front-runners based on playing time. But coach Thomas Hammock said he won’t rush to make a decision – and while he has said there are three players he likes, he won’t say which three players.

But we did learn things. So here are some of the biggest revelations after 15 practices.

Pierce Oppong is a beast on the defensive line

Not a practice went by in which Oppong didn’t have a massive play of some sort, and Saturday was again no exception.

He chased down a scrambling Hampton on a third down, stopping him before he reached the first-down marker. He also stuffed Hampton on a first-down play on an earlier series, setting up a three-and-out by the defense.

Oppong played in only one game last year before missing the rest of the season. A senior this year, he’s been a major part of the defensive line rotation since 2020. Last season was the first time he missed a game.

He’s never made more than 16 tackles in a season and has two career sacks and six tackles for loss. Those numbers are poised to skyrocket if his spring performance is any indicator.

Planning for the worst

On one drive Saturday, the Huskies went with Hampton at quarterback with the first-teamers on both sides of the ball. The big exception was running back Antario Brown, who sat out the drive.

And with Gavin Williams already missing the practice, that left Jaylen Poe and Justin Lynch as the main running backs. Although the drive didn’t end in a touchdown, it did get down to the defense’s goal line.

Poe picked up a third-and-5 early on the drive, and Hampton picked up a third-and-2 on a scramble. Then Hampton started checking down to Lynch for a series of safety passes that got the ball inside the 10.

But the drive didn’t end with a touchdown, as Lynch was stuffed on both a traditional run and out of the wildcat formation, then Brock Lampe dropped a fourth-down pass in the end zone.

“Does he need to be out here in every single situation? I don’t think so, right?” Hammock said of Brown. “We want to see what some other guys can do in live competitive situations. How do you get anybody else developed if you don’t give them a chance in a setting like this?”

Turnovers: The next frontier for the defense

The Huskies were in the top 25 nationally for total defense last year, and everyone from Hammock to the position coaches to the players said they expect to be better this season.

The big area for improvement is forcing more turnovers. And they have forced more turnovers all throughout the spring.

Safety Nate Valcarcel has become a ballhawk in the secondary. On Saturday, Hammock said the turnovers committed by the offense were uncharacteristic, but the defense has been fairly consistent in the forced turnover department all spring.

Maybe it was the severity of the turnovers Saturday, both resulting in touchdowns. Muhammed Jammeh had a scoop and score, while Jashon Prophette had a long pick six.

If the defense can consistently force other teams, and not just their own offense, to turn the ball over, it’s going to add another element to an already fearsome group.

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