Carifio: 4 things to keep an eye on as NIU ramps up spring football practices

Northern Illinois University quarterback Ethan Hampton passes the ball late in the second quarter on Saturday Sep. 23, 2023, while taking on Tulsa University in DeKalb.

For the first time since 2017, NIU has a wide-open battle at quarterback.

Spring practices are set to start March 25, and all eyes will be on the QB battle. But there are some other questions as well.

But let’s start under center.

So, who is the starting quarterback?

Who remembers the offensive MVP for the Huskies in the spring last year? Running back Antario Brown split the award with quarterback Ethan Hampton.

Hampton is in the team’s first true wide-open quarterback competition since 2017, when Ryan Graham won the starting job over Marcus Childers and Daniel Santacaterina, but got hurt. Childers took over the starting job and kept it in 2018. Then came Cal transfer Ross Bowers (2019-20) and Michigan State transfer Rocky Lombardi (2021-23).

Hampton, a junior, is the leader among the returners to win the starting job. But he has completed 58% of his passes for 968 yards, nine touchdowns and eight interceptions in 11 career games, plus is 0-4 as a starter. He had a chance to fill in when Lombardi struggled last year against Tulsa and was 4-for-10 passing for 23 yards.

NIU brought on board JUCO transfer Kenny Lueth and Arkansas-Pine Bluff junior Jalen Macon through the transfer portal.

In 23 games at American River, Lueth threw for 3,530 yards and 41 scores. In 12 games last year, he threw for 2,301 yards, 30 touchdowns and two interceptions. Macon played in six games, completing 66.3% of his passes for four touchdowns and 634 yards.

If I were a betting man, I’d put down some cash on Lueth coming away as the starter. But I’d put even more money down on there not being a clear answer coming out of spring and nothing truly being answered until Aug. 31 against Western Illinois.

How much will we see Antario Brown?

Running back is perhaps the most solidified position for the Huskies. Brown exploded as the year went on, ran for 1,296 yards and 10 touchdowns. And on top of that, Gavin Williams was an excellent change of pace. Both are back.

So why is this worth watching? It’s going to be interesting to see Brown’s usage this spring. Aside from establishing a rapport with the quarterback, there’s not really a lot to be gained from Brown playing so much as to be named spring MVP for a second straight year.

Brown is by far the most valuable piece to the NIU offense this year, so it doesn’t make much sense to take him out of the garage much yet. Keep that odometer low for the regular season.

It would also be the ideal situation to get someone like redshirt freshman running back Jaylen Poe, who has gotten high praise from coach Thomas Hammock, involved in the action.

Linebackers: Jaden Dolphin and ... ?

The top of the depth chart is pretty much gone at linebacker. DaRon Gilbert and Tyler Jackson graduated, and Devin Lafayette transferred to Jackson State.

Like at quarterback, it may be the portal to the rescue. Christian Fuhrman had 65 tackles, third for Southeast Missouri State last year, while Marc Pretto made 75 tackles in 11 games for Fordham. Both seem ready to plug into the defense alongside Dolphin.

Watching them adjust could be interesting, but there are a couple of wild cards it doesn’t seem right to dismiss out of hand. Joey Rattin and Quinn Urwiler both enter their senior years and have been key special teams players for the Huskies.

Are any young NIU receivers going to make a leap?

There basically are three names to watch here – Jalen Johnson, Dane Pardridge and Keyshaun Pipkin.

All three are redshirt sophomores. Johnson saw limited time last year, making 17 catches for 151 yards and a touchdown. Pardridge has 11 catches for 161 yards and a score. He also got pressed into punt-return service. Pipkin had one catch for 8 yards.

Receiver isn’t exactly deep for the Huskies. Trayvon Rudolph is back after briefly entering the portal, and Grayson Barnes surged in the second half of the year. Barnes also played at American River in 2022 with Lueth. So those guys stepping up could be huge, but there’s also a pair of transfers.

Like Macon, Kenji Lewis comes from Pine Bluff. He was the leading receiver for the Golden Lions with 33 catches for 429 yards last year. Plus he’s got built-in chemistry with a potential starting quarterback. There’s also Andrew McElroy, who led St. Thomas with 98 catches for 1,432 yards over the past three seasons.

So much here depends on chemistry. And so much of that depends on who ends up at quarterback. It makes both battles good ones to watch.

Eddie Carifio

Eddie Carifio

Daily Chronicle sports editor since 2014. NIU beat writer. DeKalb, Sycamore, Kaneland, Genoa-Kingston, Indian Creek, Hiawatha and Hinckley-Big Rock coverage as well.