DeKALB – The NIU running backs group will be down an NFL-caliber back and the MAC freshman of the year when the 2022 season gets underway.
But coach Thomas Hammock has incredibly high expectations for the ground attack, which finished fourth in the country last year.
“I think we’re going to be better,” Hammock said. “We’re going to be more dynamic and more explosive. Those guys have gained a level of maturity, have a better understanding of the offense, and their natural abilities are going to take over.”
His optimism stems from a trio of returning backs – Mason Blakemore, Antario Brown and Harrison Waylee. Blakemore didn’t see the field much last year but was talked highly of by Hammock. Brown ran for 538 yards in nine games, averaging 6.6 yards a carry. And after a breakout showing in 2020 as a true freshman, Waylee was hurt five games into the 2021 season, finishing with 574 yards and 5.7 yards a carry.
The team loses its leading rusher, Jay Ducker, who ran for almost 1,200 yards and was the MAC freshman of the year but transferred to Memphis. The Huskies also will be without running back/fullback Clint Ratkovich, who excelled in short-yardage situations, scoring 13 times on the ground.
Ratkovich will be taking part in the team’s pro day Wednesday ahead of the NFL draft as he looks to catch on in the pros.
“They got some playing time last year, so they know what they got to do,” Waylee said. “Experience-wise I think we’re going to be good. But losing Rat and Duck, it [stinks] losing them, but we got guys who are going to step up, and we’re going to deliver.”
Ratkovich was a staple on fourth down for the Huskies. NIU went for it 30 times last year on fourth down, 13th most in the country. The Huskies’ 25 conversions were sixth-most, and their .833 success rate was second-best behind only UCF (11 of 13).
Short-yardage situations were an emphasis in Saturday’s practice, the first one in pads of the spring. Hammock said the goal is all three guys will be ready.
“We have complete confidence in all three of them,” Hammock said. “Rat was his own entity, but I don’t foresee a falloff at all.”
Hammock said more depth is on its way this summer when true freshman and current high school seniors Jaiden Credle and Terron Kellman join the team.
Blakemore, Brown and Waylee are sophomores. Waylee joined the program in 2020, and Blakemore and Brown came onboard in 2021. Hammock said he likes that 1-2-3 punch no matter how it ends up sorting itself out.
“We’re all learning from each other each and every day,” Blakemore said. “We’re all still young, so we have a lot to accomplish. Coming in here, feeding off each other, getting better every day is what we’ve been doing so far.”
The Huskies averaged 241.4 yards a game last year on the ground, and their 36 ground scores were tied for fifth nationally.
“Just having the ability to run the football changes your team,” Hammock said. “My first two years we were not a good running football team. And, obviously ,last year we improved greatly. Part of that is the guys up front. Part of that is the tight ends. Part of that is the wide receivers. But we have tremendous backs.”
Blakemore played in seven games last year, carrying seven times for 67 yards, 3.9 a carry and a score.
He said he’s making the most of trying to increase his playing time.
“I’m just coming in trying to get better, learn more from all my older players who played last year,” Blakemore said. “Learning from Harry is important for me. Seeing film, looking at the playbook more and keep getting better every day knowing I’ve got something I can prove this year.”
Waylee said each back brings something different.
“We’re looking pretty good,” Waylee said. “There’s me, there’s AB, there’s Mason. Clint’s gone, but with Mason we have shiftiness, with AB we have a mix of everything and with me we’re downhill. And we can all learn from each other. We can build up and be great.”
Blakemore agreed with Hammock about the sky-high potential of the group, even with the losses of Ratkovich and Ducker.
“I feel like if we play all three of us, we’re going to be the best room in the country,” Blakemore said. “That’s what I feel like. We’re going to be the best backs in the country. It’s hard to stop every single one of us.”