DeKALB – Although there are technically not a lot of new faces in the running back room for the NIU football team this year, it certainly is a new look for the group that has powered the offense the past few years.
The only running back with more than 10 carries last year who returned is junior Antario Brown, who has taken on more of a leadership role this year. And although Christian Nash and Billy Dozier were on the roster last year, neither had much playing time.
“It kind of stepped up my role of leadership. Me being a majority of the carries last year and coming back this year, I’m kind of leading guys like Billy and Nash. I’ve kind of been stepping up, being more verbal, kind of coaching guys up when we’re out there on plays.”— Antario Brown
The one new player – at least during spring practices – is Iowa transfer Gavin WIlliams. And there’s also a new running backs coach, Wesley Beschorner.
“I love their energy and their enthusiasm,” Beschorner said. “It means they’re a fun group to coach. They’re very engaged. You see that in the group meetings and one-on-one. It’s been a ton of fun just to get to know them. They’re trying to figure me out, and I’m trying to figure them out. But I can see they’ve got a close group, close relationships with one another, and I look forward to creating that close relationship as a football coach and a mentor.”
Junior college transfer Azhuan Dingle is expected to join the team in the summer. Head coach Thomas Hammock said the spring practices are about seeing how the different pieces fit together and if the Huskies need to go out and add something.
Hammock said Brown has really developed this year and has been impressed with what the 5-foot-10, 218-pound junior is bringing to the table
“I think he’s starting to get confidence,” Hammock said. “He’s worked really hard in the weight room to change his body. He’s gotten stronger. And I think that confidence off the field allows you to have more confidence on the field. I’ve seen guys like him take a big jump on the field by starting to do different things. We know his explosiveness. He’s done it. He’s averaged over 6 yards a carry in his career. But it’s about that momentum and doing it on a consistent basis.”
Brown was second in carries and yards for the Huskies last year behind Harrison Waylee. Waylee, like Jaiden Credel and Mason Blakemore, hopped into the transfer portal.
So that leaves Brown from a strong group that helped the Huskies win a Mid-American Conference title in 2021 and was the main focus of an injury-plagued 2022 season. He ran 110 times for 689 yards and seven touchdowns.
“It kind of stepped up my role of leadership,” Brown said. “Me being a majority of the carries last year and coming back this year, I’m kind of leading guys like Billy and Nash. I’ve kind of been stepping up, being more verbal, kind of coaching guys up when we’re out there on plays.”
Williams had 43 carries for 138 yards with the Hawkeyes last year. Overall he played in 26 games, averaged 4.5 yards per carry and didn’t find his way into the end zone.
Hammock said the 5-11, 216-pound transfer checks a lot of boxes for the Huskies.
“He’s got experience, he’s got good rhythm, he’s got one-cut ability,” Hammock said. “He’s definitely a guy you can tell played in a Power Five conference. He’s got some leadership qualities. It’s a good mix. He’s a three-down back, and he can do everything we need a back to do in our offense.”
The program has long used the motto The Hard Way, and Williams said that spoke to him.
“With NIU here, coach Ham, that first conversation we had, he said, ‘I’m not going to lie to you. Our slogan is The Hard Way,’” Williams said. “‘Everything we do is not going to be easy. Everything we do is designed to make us better.’ ... We’re here, and we’re grinding, and those days kind of push us forward.”
Beschorner pointed out that he and Williams are in the same boat, newcomers to a program. Beschorner joined the team in February after three years as head coach at Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
He joins a program that has had productive backs and is coached by a former NIU running back who was also the running backs coach with the Baltimore Ravens.
“Coach Hammock was a running back here, and he’s coached running backs at the highest level,” Beschorner said. “Obviously, they’re very talented young men, and I think that’s a good pressure to have. Pressure is a privilege, as they say.”