There are two ways to look at the first year of the Jerry Kill era.
After the Huskies finished with a 2-10 record in 2007 under Joe Novak, Kill made sweeping changes which ended with the Huskies landing in the Independence Bowl. The Huskies, though, lost to Louisiana Tech to finish with a 6-7 record, the second straight losing season for the program.
Entering his second spring, Kill had the luxury of building on the extra bowl practices and the added experience gained by several underclassmen.
Losing 20 seniors from last year's roster limited what the Huskies could do in the spring, but Kill and his coaching staff emphasized improving on mistakes from last season. Against Louisiana Tech, the Huskies allowed a pivotal 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, prompting Kill to focus on special teams.
NIU also is looking to identify a playmaker. The Huskies struggled in the red zone in Kill's first season, leading to an unhealthy reliance on kicker Mike Salerno to finish drives with points.
Quarterback Chandler Harnish, who played in 10 games last year, addressed the red zone aspect in the spring.
"One of the things the offense needs to work on is our play in the red zone," Harnish said.
Kill said the Huskies made positive strides in the spring, but expects bigger things in the fall when the entire team is together after signing a 24-player class.
"We did a lot more situational stuff this spring," Kill said. "We worked on a lot of situations that we weren't good at last season. Whatever we struggled with in the fall, we tried to work on a lot in the spring. What we're missing right now is the depth. We will improve our depth once the new players arrive in the fall."
The Huskies must find a replacement for two-time MAC MVP Larry English. The defensive end was the heart and soul of the defense, becoming the highest NFL draft selection in NIU school history when the San Diego Chargers selected him with the 16th pick in the first round. Although Kill understands the loss of English creates a big hole, the Huskies' defensive line, spearheaded by Brandon Bice and Jake Coffman, is very deep.
"You're not going to replace a kid like Larry English," Kill said. "We'll try and get two players to make up for Larry. We feel the defensive line will be very talented and deep."
Kill noted strong play by his linebackers in the spring. The second-year coach plans on using six current players with experience and brought in three incoming recruits with speed to help give his 4-3 defense depth.
The offensive line lost two key starters but returns with plenty of experience. Center Eddie Adamski and guard Jason Onyebuagu headline a talented and battle-tested group. Finding capable tailbacks certainly won't be an issue with Me'co Brown, Chad Spann and Justin Anderson all returning. Brown gained confidence after a strong spring due to injuries to Spann and Anderson. The biggest concern stems from a young and inexperienced group of wide receivers. The Huskies lost five receivers from last year's team, with the five seniors accounting for 83 catches and 1,083 yards. Marcus Lewis impressed the coaching staff during the spring, while Landon Cox and Nate Palmer showed improvement.
Harnish led the Huskies in rushing and passing in his first year running the offense. Another year of seasoning and practices paid off for Harnish in the spring. The sophomore won't be expected to carry the offensive load next year, but Kill admitted he would like a better touchdown-to-interception ratio after Harnish threw nine interceptions and eight touchdown pass as a freshman.
"He was our best offense player a year ago," Kill said. "We asked him to do too much. He practiced well in the spring and is learning how to be the total package quarterback. He threw the ball all winter long and didn't do that last year. That helped him."
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