NIU football: The five best plays Saturday’s Spring Showcase

Northern Illinois running back Gavin Williams celebrates after scoring a touchdown with wide receiver Davis Patterson during the Spring Showcase Saturday, April 22, 2023, at Huskie Stadium at NIU in DeKalb.

DeKALB — The NIU spring football season came to a close Saturday with the Spring Showcase, an open-to-the-public practice at Huskie Stadium on a snowy and windy afternoon.

Most of the day was spent in 11-on-11 drills, with some 7-on-7 and special teams work sprinkled in.

Here are the five best plays from Saturday.

Williams’ sweep success

For a while it looked like Antario Brown was the only NIU back having any luck going between the tackles. But while it stayed that way for most of the scrimmage, Iowa transfer Gavin Williams made some head-turning plays on sweeps.

Williams scored consecutive touchdowns in red zone drills for the first team. The first one came after a big gain from Brown on a shovel pass. Williams went 5 yards to cap the scoring drive.

On the next first-team possession, he came in on another sweep to score. It may have given us a glimpse of what RB usage might look like this year, with Brown as the guy to get the tough yards up the middle and Williams as a threat to the outside. The big wild card is Azhaun Dingle, a transfer from Butler Community College who doesn’t join the team until the summer.

Shoveling away

The shovel pass to Brown to set up Williams’ score wasn’t the only time quarterback Ethan Hampton and Brown connected on that type of play. Facing a second and 5 from the defense’s 16-yard line, Hampton flipped a shovel pass to Brown, who took it into the endzone untouched for a score.

It was a fast-paced play that worked multiple times on the day.

Brown and Hampton - who ran the first-team offense while Rocky Lombardi continued to recover from a leg injury - were named co-offensive MVPs of the spring.

Break that pass up

The first-team defense managed to flush Hampton a couple of times, and on consecutive plays nearly came away with interceptions but had to settle for pass breakups.

Ray Thomas, who was named the defensive MVP of the spring, had a huge breakup while closing in on Hampton. In a full-contact situation it probably would have ended up as a sack.

Then on the next play, Jordan Hansen almost came up with a pick over the top.

The first turnover didn’t come until much later in the day, when quarterback Justin Lynch put the ball on the ground. Cameron Crowell very much tried to pick it up for a scoop and score, but as the offense started getting to him, he ended up having to fall on it to ensure the turnover.

The hard hits

Coach Thomas Hammock said staying healthy has been a main focus of the spring. He also said he was trying to build team togetherness and focus less on an offense vs. defense mentality. But that didn’t mean there were some big hits on Saturday, with the biggest coming toward the end.

With the players who had seen the field the least coming in at the end, Batavia graduate Quinn Urwiler absolutely put a hit on tight end and Homewood-Flossmoor alum Izuchukwu Ozoh.

A close runner-up for hardest hit with the tackle James Easter had of Brown, reading a first-down run from the start and snuffing it out for a 5-yard loss. Getting behind the 8-ball on first down cost the Huskies a lot last year.

The flashiest pass

One of the biggest pass plays came immediately after the back-to-back breakups by Thomas and Hansen. Hampton was flushed out of the pocket but found Keyshaun Pipkin over the middle. He evaded multiple tacklers and took the ball about 30 yards.

Hampton was at his most effective with those type of passes. The deep ball wasn’t there, but getting the ball to Pipkin in space worked, and he had similar passes to Eli Reed and Kacper Rutkiewicz.

The longest deep ball of the day was actually from Nevan Cremascoli to Malik Armstrong. The refs seemed to signal an ineligible man downfield on the play, but the coaching staff let the play stand and the drive continued.

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