NIU football notebook: Huskies to close spring with public showcase

QB Rocky Lombardi participating in noncontact drills as spring practices come to end

Northern Illinois University defensive backs Devin Lafayette (left) and CJ Brown talk during a break in the action at spring practice Friday, April 7, 2023, in Huskie Stadium at NIU in DeKalb.

DeKALB – By the time Saturday’s Spring Showcase rolls around for the Northern Illinois University football team, the Huskies will already have gone through 14 practices over the course of the spring.

And while it’s the first chance for fans to see the Huskies ahead of the 2023 season when they take the field at either Huskie Stadium or the Chessick Center, coach Thomas Hammock said the coaching staff has a really good idea of what the team is bringing to the table ahead of Saturday’s final practice.

“Who’s in position to help us? Who needs to get better? Where are some of our deficiencies? It’s just another opportunity to evaluate our football team.”

—  Thomas Hammock, NIU head coach

“I think we have a pretty good idea about our team,” Hammock said. “Just put them in more game-like situations, see how they respond. It’s another evaluation tool for us as we try to sort out the depth chart after spring. Who’s in position to help us? Who needs to get better? Where are some of our deficiencies? It’s just another opportunity to evaluate our football team.”

While not a game like a lot of high-profile colleges use to wrap up spring practices, a big chunk of the practice will be spent in 11-on-11 drills in different situations. With the crowd on hand, Hammock said it’s the best chance to see his team perform in a game-like situation ahead of the season opener Sept. 2 at Boston College.

He said the showcase will start with a move-the-ball situation to simulate the start of the game, then different segments will continue from there.

“Ultimately, we’re going to see how guys play and perform in front of people,” Hammock said. “We can see if they can play in critical moments, in critical situations. It’s another trail run for us to put the finishing touches on spring practice. Staying healthy is the most important thing, and obviously we need to know what we need to work on to get better.”

Offense vs. defense

In previous seasons, Hammock used a scoring system for each practice that pitted the offense against the defense. This year, however, he switched it up so that both sides of the ball are working toward a common goal as opposed to against each other.

He said the new system pays off on days like Wednesday. The offense struggled mightily, with at least four turnovers, most of which were unforced. Up and down the depth chart, defenders were making plays.

Redshirt freshman defensive end Cameron Crowell had a leaping smackdown of a Justin Lynch rollout pass.

“There’s certainly a better team attitude,” Hammock said. “Obviously, the defense dominated today pretty much in every facet. If it wasn’t a team score, there’d be a bunch of guys with hurt feelings. We want the camaraderie, want them to work together, be smart. Work as a team instead of offense vs. defense and create that division. I think it’s helped our team, helped our morale.

Lombardi to be very limited

Quarterback Rocky Lombardi, back with a medical redshirt after missing most of last season, was just cleared to start practicing last week. The team has been cautious in his return.

He’s been limited to noncontact drills. He hasn’t been in a single 11-on-11 drill yet. And his 7-on-7 work has been very limited. His best pass Wednesday was when he hit Dane Pardridge with a strike in the end zone for a touchdown.

“He knows how to play football,” Hammock said of Lombardi. “He’s a seven-year senior. We need to make sure he’s comfortable heading into the summertime so when he starts working the wide receivers in throwing sessions they can have some familiarity.”

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