While the taste of a 31-10 loss in the Discover Orange Bowl to Florida State Seminoles freshly lingers in the mouths of the Northern Illinois Huskies, there are other pressing issues for the MAC‘s top team heading into next season.
The departure of seven senior starters on defense and their leading receiver will be big obstacles for Huskies’ head coach Rod Carey to deal with in his first full season at the helm for Northern Illinois.
Much of quarterback Jordan Lynch‘s success through the air was due to the play of his senior wideouts: Perez Ashford and Martel Moore. The tandem provided Lynch with threats that could make plays down field on a consistent basis. Losing Moore – the Huskies’ top receiver who led them in receptions (71), receiving yards (1,054) and touchdowns (12) – is the bigger blow. Ashford was a vital player in NIU’s offense, but the Huskies can fill his void by increasing the role of Tommylee Lewis from being primarily a slot receiver, to Lynch’s top returning target.
Lewis was given more playing time this season after being used as a returner on special teams in his first year and has elite speed that could present more chances for long-yardage plays through the air.
While Lynch is the Huskies’ best runner, Carey needs to find a way to blend in running backs Akeem Daniels and Leighton Settle more into the ground game to alleviate some of the offensive load off of Lynch. Even seeing more involvement from their tight ends – who are used as additional blockers in both the pass and run game – could give new openings in the middle of the field for the Huskies’ offense.
And where Northern Illinois might be hurt the most is on its defensive line. The Huskies won’t have their pass-rushing ends in Sean Progar and Alan Baxter back next season. Both defensive ends finished No. 1 and 2 for sack-leaders in the MAC this season. While he didn’t provide a pass-rush inside, the subtraction of defensive tackle Nabal Jefferson certainly thins the Huskies inside – both figuratively and on the depth chart.
Joe Windsor will take over duties at one of the starting defensive end spots. Windsor appeared in all 13 games and played well in a part-time rotational role for the Huskies defensive line. His shorter stature as a defensive end – 6-0, 236 lbs. – didn’t prevent him more contributing. but he’ll have to find the same success next season without Progar and Baxter.
The departure of defensive backs Demetrius Stone and Rashaan Melvin are major losses in Northern Illinois’ secondary, but the return of the defense’s leading tackler Jimmie Ward is a plus. Ward has gone from a being a special teams standout in his freshman season, to a hard-hitting versatile defensive back that can play almost every position in the secondary.