DETROIT – When Chandler Harnish handed the reins of the Northern Illinois offense to Jordan Lynch, the transition between quarterbacks was nearly seamless.
From 2010-14, the two helped NIU win 46 games – the same amount as Alabama and Stanford – while only Oregon (47) had more wins during that time.
Harnish finished his career with 30 different offensive school records as a four-year starter and the Indianapolis Colts drafted him after his senior season. Lynch immediately took over as a junior and led the Huskies to 24 wins, a BCS bowl bid in 2012 and was a Heisman Trophy finalist last year.
With Lynch now in the NFL, NIU must usher in another new quarterback to lead the Huskies in the Mid-American Conference West Division, a process second-year coach Rod Carey depicts as business as usual.
“The transition isn’t really too hard,” Carey said Wednesday at MAC Media Day at Ford Field in Detroit. “It’s kind of natural.”
It’s kind of natural in that the NIU program, from former coaches Joe Novak, Jerry Kill and Dave Doeren to Carey himself, has coached its talent to play like NFL-caliber players for the past decade in DeKalb, Ill.
Lynch was an underrated recruit who sat behind Harnish as a redshirt freshman. Through Doeren’s coaching, and later Carey, he went from a role player, to a starter and to a standout who flourished into a media darling, posting video game-like numbers with his feet as a human highlight reel each week.
But his success didn’t start on game day. It started in practice, a place where the Huskies breed their younger talent into future stars every day. As cliché as it sounds, it’s the hard work each player puts in there that makes the team successful on Saturdays.
“We do that every day,” Carey said. “You have to tackle that every day. For quarterbacks, it’s footwork; it’s ball positioning; it’s timing with the wide receivers; it’s weight room work; it’s on-the-field work; it’s being around your guys creating that chemistry. It’s all of the above, and it has to happen every day.”
NIU expects each quarterback to work just as hard as the starter, even the walk-on freshman who is last on the depth chart. That’s why Carey is certain Lynch’s replacement will step in and keep the Huskies nationally relevant.
Junior Matt McIntosh and sophomores Drew Hare and Anthony Maddie have battled for that starting position this offseason. McIntosh and Maddie are threats to run and can resemble Lynch at times, while Hare is a true pro-style passer who relies on his arm more than his feet.
Although Carey expects the winner of the job to lead the team to another appearance in the MAC Championship, he doesn’t expect the new quarterback to play like Lynch or Harnish from Day 1.
He’s given each quarterback on this year’s squad the same advice.
“Just be yourself,” the coach said he told them. “You can’t go in and try to be Jordan or try to be Chandler. If you do that, you’re not going to be very good. Be yourself and everything else will take care of itself.”
The three quarterbacks did well in spring practices but came up short during the spring game. No one has run away with the starting job, but Carey expects someone to grab it during one of NIU’s 29 fall practices.
But at this time, not even the coach himself knows when he’ll announce the starter.
“I don’t know when,” he said. “It could be the day before our first game. It could be five days before. It could be two weeks before, or all of the above.”
Whoever lands the starting job will have help around him.
The Huskies return nine offensive starters, including four linemen. Two experienced seniors – Ryan Brown and Tyler Loos – will protect Lynch’s replacement from outside pass rushers, and junior interior linemen Aidan Conlon and Andrew Ness have each started in every game since 2012. The four enter fall camp with a combined 103 starts on their resume, while redshirt senior Tyler Pitt fills the opening at right guard with his 42 games of experience as a reserve player.
On the outside, seniors Da’Ron Brown and Tommylee Lewis will continue to be dynamic pass catchers. Brown, who is on the Biletnikoff Award’s preseason watch list, led the Huskies in receiving with 752 yards and nine touchdowns in 2013. Lewis finished last season as an All-American Honorable Mention. He was a threat to score as a receiver, rusher or return specialist in each game, and his 1,405 all-purpose yards yielded him All-Conference First Team honors.
The team may be the strongest at running back, as Cameron Stingily returns as a senior to best his mark of 1,119 yards rushing from last season. At 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, he stands as a bruiser opposing MAC West teams struggle to tackle. He averaged 86 yards per game last year, and the league named him Offensive Player of the Week twice. Senior Akeem Daniels will rotate with Stingily throughout each game and bring a burst of speed to NIU’s offense. Daniels was an integral player during the 2012 MAC Championship, recording 195 yards in the win, but he missed all of 2013 with an injury.
The chatter surrounding the program is that the Huskies will rely heavily on their running backs to help ease the new starting quarterback into the offense. It would be the smart thing to do, some say, especially with the experience at the position and on the offensive line.
When asked if that’s what the Huskies should do this season, Stingily was quick to offer his opinion.
“Personally, I hope so,” the tailback chuckled, while panning his face toward his coach.
“Why you gotta look at me?” Carey snapped.
“I’m a running back,” Stingily responded. “I want the ball in my hands.”