12:52 AM EDT, August 23, 2014
DEKALB, Ill. — After winning 46 games over the last four seasons, it might appear Northern Illinois merely needs to reload and not rebuild.
Yet the losses of record-setting quarterback Jordan Lynch and playmaking safety Jimmie Ward left major voids to fill on both sides of the ball.
Lynch, third in the Heisman Trophy voting, helped the Huskies spend 11 weeks in the Top 25 in at least one poll last season.
"We have probably had some of the best quarterback play in the country from Chandler Harnish to Jordan Lynch," coach Rod Carey said. "So whoever comes in … there are big expectations. But they have to be themselves, whoever wins this job. And that's what we will be looking for."
Ward was a third-team AP All-American in 2013 and a first-round draft pick by the 49ers.
"You don't replace (Ward)," Carey said. "You just get the next guy in. But Marlon (Moore) and Dechane (Durante) have done a nice job. Brandon Mayes (a redshirt freshman from Aurora Christian) had a real nice camp too. I am really happy with how they are coming together and communicating back there. They are playmakers in their own right."
Replacing Lynch figures to be more problematic. Carey entered the weekend without naming a starter for Thursday's opener against Presbyterian. Junior Matt McIntosh and sophomores Drew Hare and Anthony Maddie are competing for the job.
McIntosh appeared in five games last season, tossing touchdown passes on both of his attempts. He also ran six times for 44 yards.
"I think (the experience) helps me a lot," McIntosh said. "I know a lot of the guys coming back. I feel like I am very comfortable in the offense. Everything is kind of slowing down for me now.
"I have run the ball a lot, but I can also pass the ball. I have been working on my throwing, working on my accuracy. I have gotten a lot better throwing-wise."
The Huskies have several weapons on offense to take pressure off whoever emerges at quarterback. Tailback Cameron Stingily rushed for 1,119 yards in 13 games last season, and fellow senior Akeem Daniels returns healthy after missing last season with a foot injury.
Four starters return on the offensive line — Aidan Conlon, Andrew Ness, Ryan Brown and Tyler Loos — as do receivers Da'Ron Brown (46 catches, 752 yards, 9 TDs) and Tommylee Lewis (86, 715, 3) for an offense that broke nine school records last year, including points per game (39.6)
"Any given play, no matter who can get the ball, it can be a big play," Hare said. "It's a lot of fun to be quarterback here. I mean, we have so many playmakers and we only have one ball."
In addition to Ward, NIU lost key performers on the defensive line in Ken Bishop, George Rainey, Anthony Wells and Joe Windsor.
"About a year ago, we had about the same amount to replace on defense," Carey said. "And that is a sign of a good program. When you have seniors that are playing, that means your young guys can't beat them out because they are playing their best football as seniors."
With challenging road assignments against Northwestern, UNLV and Arkansas in September, the Huskies should have an early indication of whether they might be headed for a fifth straight Mid-American Conference West championship.
NIU has appeared in six straight bowl games, losing 21-14 to Utah State in last season's Poinsettia Bowl, and have the nation's longest home winning streak of 26 games.
"It has been a road of success," said Brown, a senior from Morgan Park. "We have been working to make sure it stays that way. We don't want any fall-off."
For now, Carey says he is most concerned about getting out of the gate with a win against the FCS Blue Hose — but he isn't worried about his players looking past Presbyterian to the Northwestern game on Sept. 6.
"It's not hard because a lot of these guys who are playing … it's going to be their first game," Carey said. "So that's all they've got in their sight. That focus has been really good."
Reason to believe: The starting offensive line returns mostly intact, allowing the Huskies to continue to thrive on the ground and in the air. Fifteen starters in all are back, including nine on offense, from a team that posted NIU's first undefeated regular season as a major-college program.
Reason to doubt: The loss of several key defensive linemen leaves an untested group to try to contain opponents in the high-scoring MAC. Linebackers Boomer Mays and Jamaal Bass and safeties Marlon Moore and Dechane Durante will be counted on to make big plays.
Season is a success if ... NIU wins the MAC West for the fifth year in a row, wins the MAC title game and advances to a seventh straight bowl game. Yes, the bar has been set high.
Player to watch: Wide receiver Da'Ron Brown returns for his senior season after leading the Huskies with 752 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. The Morgan Park product can help take the pressure off whichever quarterback emerges to succeed Heisman Trophy finalist Jordan Lynch.
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