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New life as NIU's Kill era begins
Strong message sent: Screw up and you'll think pink
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 3/25/2008 12:03 AM

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DEKALB -- Depth charts and preconceived notions are out.

Fullbacks, mobile quarterbacks and hideous yellow jerseys with pink lettering are in.

Those are the initial impressions of the Jerry Kill era at Northern Illinois, which finally pushed into the actual football phase Monday as the Huskies opened spring ball with a 7:50 a.m. practice in 32-degree temperatures.

With the exception of his former school's warmer climate, which would be helpful this week, Kill essentially crated up Southern Illinois' successful methods and unpacked them inside Huskie Stadium and the Yordon Center.

The transformation started with the team's 12 weeks of off-season workouts, which emphasized Kill's lust for competition.

"Every morning in our conditioning workout, every player had a man they were going against every rep and it was a competition," said senior defensive end Larry English, the MAC's 2007 player of the year. "At the end of it, it was scored so you either won that day or you lost. Either you beat your man or you lost. I thought that was a good thing."

In Kill's world, you get points for winning. For earning good grades. For doing "the right things."

But Huskies who skip class, show up late for team meetings or otherwise fail to live up to Kill's standards? The coach lends them a yellow shirt for a week or two that they must wear throughout the football complex.

"It says in pink letters, 'I LET MY TEAM DOWN,' " said redshirt freshman quarterback DeMarcus Grady.

"That's something they don't want to be in," Kill said.

While laying down the ground rules and stressing competition, Kill and his assistants -- seven of which spent seven years with him at SIU -- installed the team's new schemes.

While the defense won't change drastically from the "Attack 4-3" favored during Joe Novak's 12 years at NIU, the offense will look much more like the quarterback-centric spread attacks that have swept the nation in recent years.

You'll even see the Huskies using the shotgun far more frequently than before.

"A lot of QB draws, a lot of running, a lot of sprint-out type passes," said redshirt freshman quarterback Chandler Harnish. "I'm real familiar with the system, which I'm real happy about, real excited. Hopefully things go well. It's going to be a new year this year and we're going to be very explosive, I can tell you that."

With incumbent starter Dan Nicholson limited to mental repetitions this spring after undergoing off-season shoulder surgery, Harnish and Grady are alternating snaps with junior Ryan Morris this spring.

Quarterback, like every other position save English's right defensive end slot, has been declared an open competition.

The coaches aren't working from a depth chart. For the most part, they used seniority to determine their first-team units for the opening practice.

But with several of the Huskies' 20 scholarship seniors sitting out this spring for health reasons, including top receivers Britt Davis and Matt Simon, there are plenty of chances for younger guys to shine.

That's especially true at fullback, a position that didn't exist in NIU's former offense.

The coaches recruited volunteers from all over the field -- including quarterback Paul Blalock (Waubonsie Valley), defensive end Anthony Antonacci (Neuqua Valley) and linebacker Connor Flahive -- to try out at fullback.

"Kids are smart," Kill said. "A new guy comes in, they look and say, 'There ain't nobody at that point. I want to jump in there and give it a shot.' "

Northern Illinois' spring in a box

When: Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at Huskie Stadium from 7:50-9:50 a.m. Practices are open to the public.

Theme: New coach Jerry Kill and his veteran staff (eight Southern Illinois assistants came north with him) install new offenses and defenses and get their first true look at their squad. The offense requires the quarterback to be able to run as well as throw on the run, which is a change from the tailback-oriented style of the Joe Novak era. The defense remains a 4-3 alignment, but with a few different wrinkles.

Position battles: Technically, there's no depth chart and all of the jobs are open, but the Huskies bring back 39 guys who started at least one game during the injury-riddled 2007 season. That's every starter except for kicker Chris Nendick, left tackle Chris Acevedo, tight end Brandon Davis and safety Mark Reiter.

Numbers to know: NIU retains the players responsible for 100 percent of its 1,626 rushing yards, 100 percent of its 2,429 passing yards and 95.6 of its receiving yards last season.

Spring game: April 26 at 1 p.m.

First game: Aug. 30 at Minnesota.