NIU Sports

NIU football: Five under-the-radar players to keep an eye on as fall practices begin

Northern Illinois University defensive ends Izayah Green-May (left) and Michael Kennedy take part in a drill Monday, August 1, 2022, during practice at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb.

Sure, quarterback Rocky Lombardi might make a leap in Year 2 at NIU, and Antario Brown and Harrison Waylee are going to have to up their games another notch in the offensive backfield.

But as Northern Illinois University started fall practices Monday, there are five guys that are going to be pivotal for the Huskies if they wish to repeat as MAC Champions, at the very least. We are talking about an NIU program that hasn’t won a bowl game since 2011. That includes a 47-41 loss to Coastal Carolina in the Cure Bowl that ended on a controversial play that stayed in the news for a minute.

For the Huskies to build on that 9-5 season, these five under-the-radar players will be key.

Izayah Green-May, senior, defensive end

A transfer from Wisconsin, Green-May is looking to bolster a pass rush that averaged less than two sacks a game. A lack of pressure on the quarterback was frequently pointed to by coach Thomas Hammock as a reason the Huskies only managed three interceptions as a team last season.

Enter the 6-6, 242-pound outside pass rusher. He didn’t get the most time with the Badgers, redshirting for the 2017 season and then making his first start the next year. He appeared in nine games last season but had only two tackles.

Still, he’s got the build and the speed to give the NIU defensive line the boost it needs, along with another year of experience for young stars like James Ester, Raishein Thomas and Devonte O’Malley.

Miles Joiner, senior, tight end

It’s weird pointing out a pair of seniors that start on an NIU team that, for the third straight year, can still be called young.

But with Clint Ratkovich graduated, the Huskies lose, well, technically a running back, but still a guy who could catch the ball in short-yardage situations. And while Joiner may not break off any 96-yard touchdown runs, there’s enough running backs on the roster for that.

Joiner’s value comes in his ability to catch the ball in situations Ratkovich would have last season. It might take two people to replace Ratkovich, but Joiner (6-4, 251 pounds) definitely seems like he can replicate or surpass his catch-passing ability.

Shemar Thornton, senior, wide receiver

Joiner should be a good target. We know Cole Tucker and Lombardi have developed a good rhythm, and Trayvon Rudolph had 300 receiving yards in a game last season that everybody seems to think is just the tip of the iceberg.

But if there were another big receiving threat, a deep threat opposite Rudolph that could draw attention from or take advantage of the attention on Rudolph, and really help Tucker and Joiner get open underneath, then the Huskies could be scary on offense. And that’s without mentioning the running game.

The transfer from FIU played 34 games, making 73 catches for 993 yards. He only played in two games last season after missing 2020 with an injury. He was the leading receiver for FIU in 2019.

Pete Nygra, freshman, offensive line

Four starting offensive linemen return for the Huskies. Center Brayden Patton does not. It’s up to the 6-4, 287-pound Nygra to take over at center.

You didn’t hear the offensive line talked about much last season despite eye-popping rushing numbers by a trio of running backs, but they say a good offensive line is hardly ever noticed.

If Nygra fits in and this story is the first thing that pops up in a Google search for him, you’ll know he’s done his job.

Eric Rogers, sophomore, cornerback

If Rogers wasn’t hurt five weeks into last season, it would be laughable if he were on this list. He started the first five games and got hurt but not before making 26 tackles, including seven each in games against Wyoming and Georgia Tech to start the season.

With him returning to the secondary, those three interceptions the Huskies made as a team last year could be eclipsed very quickly this season. And if the secondary is forcing turnovers, that’s a good sign things are going right for the Huskies.