DeKALB – Sixth in the nation in red-zone rushing touchdowns. Twelfth in red-zone scoring percentage. Second in fourth-down conversion percentage.
When it came to short-yardage situations last year, the NIU offense was incredibly successful, in large part thanks to Clint Ratkovich.
But the hybrid fullback-halfback has graduated – his NFL draft prospects were dashed by an injury during a workout with the Green Bay Packers – and the Huskies are exploring their options of what short-yardage situations will look like this season, which starts Sept. 1 at home against Eastern Illinois.
“We have a lot of answers,” head coach Thomas Hammock said. “We are not short on answers. It’s a matter of finding the right pieces and putting those pieces in the right places to get production.”
[ Related: ‘We are definitely in the age of the mega-conference:’ 5 takeaways from NIU’s media day ]
A big portion of early practices, particularly on Saturday, went into evaluating what the team’s capable of in short-yardage situations, said both Hammock and offensive coordinator Eric Eidsness. Eidsness said the team is looking at its main running back core – Harrison Waylee, Mason Blakemore and Antario Brown – as possible short-yardage options to replace Ratkovich.
And while one of them may not be able to replace Ratkovich’s efficiency on their own, Hammock said they all have specific things they excel at.
“I think collectively we can get similar type production,” Hammock said. “That’s our job as coaches, to make sure we do a great job evaluating what are the things that they can do. We have guys that can do things better than Clint, individually. Now it might be a little different or a little different package, but we have some guys who can do special things.”
Waylee started the first five games last year before an injury ended his season. He finished with 574 yards, a 5.7-yards-per-carry average and four scores. Brown started the next two games and finished the year with 538 yards, a 6.6 average and five scores. Blakemore, in limited action, ran 17 times for 67 yards and a TD.
Waylee said the running back group is up to the task of replacing Ratkovich in short-yardage situations, as he scored a team-best 13 times.
“The running back group looks tremendous,” Waylee said. “Me, Mason, AB, even the young guys that are new, Billy [Dozier, a convert from wide receiver], all of us. We can all get it done.”
Eidsness said it may be more of a committee approach in the red zone and on fourth downs this year, but like with other situations the team will be trying to find the hot running back and ride him as much as possible.
He also said that the mindset in short situations is totally different, with the emphasis on trying to get at least to the first down marker no matter what, even if that means giving up the chance for a longer, riskier run.
Blakemore, Waylee and Brown are all sophomores, and Eidsness said he’s seen the three of them improve in that area this year.
“Sometimes it’s hard because you’re putting runners back there and you’re telling them you can’t look for a big play,” Eidsness said. “They have to be able to turn that situation on and off. I do think a year ago some of our younger backs didn’t understand that. But they are starting to mature and understand and growing into that area.”
Waylee said the mindset switch isn’t too difficult and something he looks forward to.
“I just go in thinking I’ve got to get this job done,” Waylee said. “Don’t look for the big play, look at your sticks and see what you’ve got to get. If you can get more, then get more, but if you can get that, then definitely get that to keep the drive alive.”