DeKALB – Nothing like an injury and a nearly yearlong recovery process to put some excitement into the first practice of the fall season.
The Northern Illinois University football team opened its fall practices Wednesday, which meant senior quarterback Rocky Lombardi was back on the field for the first time since October 15.
“I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time,” the Michigan State transfer in his seventh collegiate season said. “Not too many fall camps you’re super excited for to start but this one, for sure, was definitely sweet for me.”
Coach Thomas Hammock and the NIU staff have a policy not to comment on the nature of injuries. But Lombardi was injured against Vanderbilt in Week 3 last year. He played a little a month later against Eastern Michigan, but sat out the rest of the year.
It wasn’t just his injury the Huskies had to deal with last year as they went from 2021 Mid-American Conference champions to last place in the MAC West, finishing 3-9.
“It sucked for me. I really wanted to see these guys succeed,” Lombardi said. “I see the work that they put in, so to not have the season that we wanted, especially with the expectations we had, was heartbreaking for me. But I think we all learned a lot from it.”
“I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time. Not too many fall camps you’re super excited for to start but this one for sure was was definitely sweet for me.”— Rocky Lombardi, NIU quarterback
In his first year with the Huskies, Lombardi threw for 2,597 yards, 15 touchdowns and eight interceptions while completing 58% of his passes to help power NIU to a MAC title.
In four games last year, he completed 50 of 75 passes for 645 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. He ended up with a medical redshirt for an extra year of eligibility.
Not only did Lombardi miss most of the season, he was sidelined throughout spring practices. He was cleared to play only during the last week, but was not ready in time to return to full-contact drills.
“There’s ups and downs in every recovery,” Lombardi said. “I certainly had my share of ups and downs, but ever since probably a little more than a month ago I’ve felt pretty good. Now it’s just about trying to maintain and keep my body as healthy as I can and maintain my workload.”
Lombardi had a pair of deep passes Wednesday, one to Keyshaun Pipkin and one to Trayvon Rudolph, who also missed all of last year with an injury and was in full-contact drills for the first time in more than a year. Lombardi was intercepted once when linebacker Tyler Jackson jumped a route and came up with the ball.
Although Wednesday was the first day of practice, and without pads on top of that, Hammock said he liked what he saw from Lombardi.
“I think he had a good day,” Hammock said. “Obviously, the timing needs to be better with the wide receivers. I think that will continue to develop, but he’s healthy, he’s running and he’s excited for the season.”
During his recovery, Lombardi said he felt like he became a member of the coaching staff. It runs in his family, as both his father and grandfather are football coaches. He said a lot of what he’s learned can translate onto the field this year.
Hammock said he feels the experience has helped Lombardi’s progression. He was a great resource for the team’s younger quarterbacks, and it’s made him an even better leader on the field.
“You can just see how he gets the guys lined up,” Hammock said. “For guys in the wrong spot, he gets them directed. He understands coverages. He gets us into the right checks. And he’s kind of a coach on the field. I think he embraces that, he works at it, he studies it, he puts a lot of time into his craft, and I think it shows every time he comes out there.”
The season is set to start Sept. 2 at Boston College, with the home opener a week later against Southern Illinois.
Lombardi said he has very high hopes for the season.
“This is the most talented group that I’ve had since I’ve been here,” Lombardi said. “We have a lot of weapons. We got weapons of the tight end position, receiver position, running backs; you know, coach Ham’s always going to have the running back room loaded. But we get [that] we got talent all over the field, which is really nice. Not to say that we didn’t have it before, but I think that the depth and the quality of players we have this year is better than what we’ve had in the past.”