NIU experiments at practice with rushing depth beyond running backs

DeKALB — With three high-profile returning running backs in the fold, expectations are high for the NIU ground game.

But at practice Wednesday, coach Thomas Hammock said the team was working on its situational depth with different players running the ball.

Of Mason Blakemore, Harrison Waylee and Antario Brown, Waylee was the main one taking carries and the only one rushing in the final hour of the two-hour practice that preceded the program’s pro day.

On Saturday, Brown was in a red non-contact jersey as he was coming off an injury. Wednesday, Waylee was in a non-contact jersey.

“It’s not filling in,” Hammock said. “What we’re trying to do is build our depth by the end of the spring and prepare for different scenarios that may come up during the season. The great thing about our team is that guys are understanding they are playing different positions and seeing what we’ve got.”

The team ran a lot more jet sweeps behind Trayvon Rudolph, including a run that went for over 20 yards in full-team drills. Receivers Billy Dozier and Isaiah Bragg, lined up as running backs, took straight handoffs from the backfield as well.

“It’s the spring so we’re trying some different guys, some different things,” Hammock said. “We’re trying to build depth for the season.”

Tight end Drew Cassens and fullback Brock Lampe also saw a lot of action as targets for not only starting quarterback Rocky Lombardi but the backups as well.

“I thought they played well,” Hammock said. “They’ll continue to do multiple things. We’re still in the install phase, and we treat it like every practice is a game so we’re trying to install a couple new wrinkles on offense, a couple new things on defense and play some more situational football.”

Wednesday was the third practice in pads for the Huskies, and Hammock said he likes the direction the team is heading.

“We staked three days together,” Hammock said. “I like where the guys are at. We’re taking care of one another, which is good. They’re understanding we have to be able to stay healthy and stay up to keep our team the way we want to game.”

He said both sides of the ball have had their peaks and valleys, and the goal is to sustain the peaks for a longer period of time.

“As a veteran team they have to understand that and they have to prepare,” Hammock said.

It also marked one of the few opportunities Hammock got to refer to his club – which has had more freshmen on its roster than most other NCAA teams the past two seasons – as veterans.

“We’re still young, but they’re young veterans,” Hammock said. “It’s good because we can throw more at them. They have to take more player ownership on the off days, on the days in between. No different when you get into the season, you’ve got to watch the game on your own before the coach watches it so you already know the things you can improve upon.”