NCF Nation: Jasmin Hopkins Bowl

December, 4, 2011
Arkansas State Red Wolves (10-2) vs. Northern Illinois Huskies (10-3)

Jan. 8, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Arkansas State take by college football blogger Matt Fortuna: The Red Wolves' 45-14 win Saturday over Troy made them the first team in Sun Belt Conference history to win 10 regular-season games. Hugh Freeze became just the 14th FBS first-year head coach to win 10 regular-season games. In addition, by going 8-0 in conference play, Arkansas State is just the third school in Sun Belt history to go undefeated in conference play.

The Red Wolves have their first 10-win season since 1986 and are on a nine-game winning streak for the first time since 1975. They won seven games by double-digits, their most since 1987. And they have done it behind both sides of the ball, ranking 25th in total offense and 20th in total defense.

Wide receiver Dwayne Frampton has rewritten the school record book, amassing a school-record 1,125 receiving yards on 90 catches this season. His 159 career catches are a school record. His five 100-yard receiving games this year are tied for most in a single season in school history.

Defensively, the Red Wolves have held six opponents below 20 points and seven below 100 rushing yards, and have 18 interceptions, tied for fifth in the nation.

NIU take from Nation blogger Andrea Adelson: Not again, right? Every time Northern Illinois had gotten into the MAC title game, it ended in disappointment for the Huskies.

They were back in it this year after losing a heartbreaker in 2010, and found themselves down 20-0 to Ohio at one point in the second half. But quarterback Chandler Harnish willed his team to a win, and the defense came up with huge plays as the Huskies rallied for a 23-20 victory, tying the largest comeback in school history. Northern Illinois can call itself conference champions for the second time, and have posted back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in school history.

Northern Illinois also is one of just five teams among the non-AQs to have at least six wins in five straight seasons.

Perhaps most impressive about the championship is this: The Huskies did it with a first-year coach in Dave Doeren and nine new starters on defense. Plus, they lost MVP running back Chad Spann. Without him, Harnish picked up his game and won MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors, setting a school record with more than 4,000 yards of total offense, and adding 37 touchdowns.

Harnish, always a threat out of the backfield, had more than 1,000 yards on the ground -- the 12th time in 13 seasons the Huskies had somebody go for more than 1,000 yards rushing. Jasmin Hopkins replaced Spann in the backfield and ran for 932 yards and 15 touchdowns. Linebacker Pat Schiller leads the way with 108 tackles, including 10 for loss. This is a team that is generally involved in some pretty entertaining and close games. Seven games have been decided by a touchdown or less -- five by a field goal or less.
2010 overall record: 11-3

2010 conference record: 8-0 (West champs, lost in MAC title game)

Returning starters

Offense: 9, defense: 4, punter/kicker: 1

Top returners

QB Chandler Harnish, DE Sean Progar, DB Tommy Davis

Key losses

RB Chad Spann, DE Jake Coffman, LB Alex Kube

2010 statistical leaders (* denotes returners)

Rushing: Spann (1,388 yards, 22 TDs)

Passing: Harnish*(189-of-292 for 2,530 yards, 21 TDs, 5 INT)

Receiving: Willie Clark* (602 yards, 7 TDs)

Tackles: Kube (81)

Sacks: Coffman (9.5)

Interceptions: T. Clark* (four)

Spring Answers

1. Depth at receiver: Four of the team’s five leading receivers return, giving Harnish plenty of options. Perez Ashford had a nice spring, catching six passes for 70 yards in the spring game. Martel Moore caught the long pass of the game, a 57-yarder from Harnish. Da'Ron Brown and even converted quarterback DeMarcus Grady add plenty more.

2. Jasmin Hopkins atop the running back depth chart: The Huskies have some big shoes to fill with the departure of Spann, the MAC player of the year. There are plenty of candidates between Hopkins, Jamal Womble, Akeem Daniels and Leighton Settle, but Hopkins was the most consistent in the spring.

3. Harnish looks good: The Huskies didn’t implement their entire offense in the spring, but Huskies fans shouldn’t worry even if there is more of a no-huddle look under new coach Dave Doeren. Harnish picked up where he left off last season and had the spring everyone expected. He goes into the fall as the top choice for preseason offensive player of the year.

Fall Questions

1. Doeren adjusts: No matter how much talent returns to the team, how it will play under a new coach and coaching staff will be a question mark until the season begins. Doeren has never been a head coach before, so there could be some bumps along the way.

2. Running back rotation: The Huskies have always been a team that relied on their running game. There is plenty of depth without Spann, but there are still questions about how Doeren is going to balance that depth. Will there be one player consistent enough to take the majority of the carries or will the Huskies be employing a running back by committee?

3. Defensive line, middle linebacker still undecided: With Devon Butler sidelined for the season, expect tough competition for the starting job between Mike Hellams, Cameron Stingley and Victor Jacques. The Huskies also have to replace their sack leader and emotional leader in Jake Coffman. Joe Windsor, Alan Baxter and Stephen O'Neal are in the mix.

NIU backs competing to start

April, 22, 2011
The position is there for the taking, one that has traditionally been an area of strength for Northern Illinois.

With Chad Spann gone, the competition to replace him at running back has been intense. But as the Huskies prepare for their spring game Saturday, there is no clear-cut front-runner for the job.

Jasmin Hopkins, Jamal Womble and Akeem Daniels are all in the mix to become the starter. Coach Dave Doeren said there will be plenty more competition to be had at that spot come the fall. For now, the three are working on consistency, a key word Hopkins and Womble reiterated in separate telephone interviews this week.

“There couldn’t be a better situation for me,” said Womble, who enrolled at Northern Illinois in January out of Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. “With Chad leaving, there are huge shoes to fill, and there will be a lot of pressure. But as a competitor, you want that pressure.”

Hopkins and Daniels were on the team last season and watched Spann dominate, rushing for 1,388 yards and a school single-season record 22 touchdowns en route to MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors and the MAC Vern Smith Leadership Award.

But then Womble entered the picture. A former four-star running back out of high school in Arizona, he initially signed with North Carolina. He broke his wrist his redshirt freshman season there and then ran into academic troubles, so he transferred to Hutchinson.

Then-coach Jerry Kill offered him a scholarship, and Womble was set to accept. But then Kill abruptly resigned to become head coach at Minnesota and Northern Illinois was out. What changed his mind? Tom Matukewicz was recruiting him, and he stayed on staff. Then he started thinking about what Doeren brings to the Huskies.

Doeren served as the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin, a traditional power run team that used three running backs last season in John Clay, Montee Ball and James White. Those three combined for 3,060 yards and 46 touchdowns in 2010. Clay and White each had more than 1,000 yards, while Ball finished 4 yards shy of reaching 1,000.

“Coach Doeren said nothing was going to change,” Womble said. “He said he would still run the ball and be a hard-nosed team.”

When Womble arrived, he was embraced by the other running backs even though he was their main competition. “There’s been no hostility, and that’s something I’ve appreciated since Day 1,” Womble said. “I didn’t know how people would react to me because there was hype. I came from a bigger school and maybe guys thought I would be coming in there taking their job. But it hasn’t been like that.”

Womble is a different type of running back than Hopkins and Daniels, bringing more power. Hopkins and Daniels are much quicker. But they have the advantage of playing experience at Northern Illinois. Hopkins is the top returning running back on the roster, with 366 yards and two touchdowns.

For Hopkins, the transition to yet another coaching staff has been tough. He also played at junior college in Kansas before arriving at Northern Illinois last year. But he learned enough from Spann to help him headed into this spring even though there are new coaches and new terminology.

“Being patient is one of the main things because when I first got here, I was seeing one thing and running sideline to sideline,” Hopkins said. “But in D-I, linemen and linebackers are just as fast as you so you can’t do that. He also taught me better technique that I had never learned before. I put it all together and it made me into a better player. I’m having a way better spring than I had last year.”

Chandler Harnish returns as quarterback, giving the Huskies yet another threat to run the football. With so many options, it appears the Huskies are in good shape headed into the fall, even without Spann leading the way.

“The competition has made us better,” Hopkins said. “We all know the starting job is open. Whoever is most consistent is going to play.”
2009 overall record: 7-6

2009 conference record: 5-3

Returning starters (started 7 or more games)

Offense: 6, defense: 10, punter/kicker: 1

Top returners

TB Chad Spann, WR Landon Cox, FB Kyle Skarb, OT Trevor Olson, CB Chris Smith, S Tracy Wilson, DT D.J. Pirkle, DE Sean Progar, OLB Alex Kube

Key losses

C Eddie Adamski, OG Jason Onyebuagu, DE Jake Coffman, DE Brandon Bice, LB Cory Hanson

2009 statistical leaders (* denotes returners)

Rushing: Chad Spann* (1,038 yards rushing)

Passing: Chandler Harnish* (1,670 yards passing)

Receiving: Landon Cox* (45 catches, 535 yards)

Tackles: Tracy Wilson* (93 tackles)

Sacks: Jake Coffman (8.5); Sean Progar* (6.0)

Interceptions: Cory Hanson (3); Patrick George* (2)

Spring answers

1. Running backs a-plenty: Chad Spann was already going to be the starting running back next season, but now he won’t have to do it alone. The Huskies found an abundance of running back depth with Cameron Bell, Jasmin Hopkins and Ricky Crider. The depth is so strong that many are likening it to the years when the Huskies had Michael Turner and Garrett Wolfe in the backfield.

2. Fill holes on the line: The Huskies had two major holes to fill on the offensive line, but none more important than the one left by center Eddie Adamski. Scott Wedige had been the center in waiting for a year and he stepped in with little incident this spring. His ability to seamlessly jell with the rest of the line will do wonders for whichever quarterback the Huskies decide to use.

3. Stingy defense: The Northern Illinois defense was the best in the Mid-American Conference last season and seemed to get even better this spring with increased athleticism. The Huskies did lose sack leader and defensive MVP Jake Coffman and interception leader Cory Hanson from last year’s squad, but there are several other players who are poised for big seasons.

Fall questions

1. Little resolved at quarterback: Last year’s starter, Chandler Harnish, was supposed to miss the spring with knee surgery, but that didn’t happen and he looked comfortable during the spring. But whether he keeps his starting quarterback job remains to be seen. DeMarcus Grady, Jordan Lynch, A.J. Hill and incoming junior college transfer Casey Weston will all take a run at it in the fall.

2. Waiting on the freshmen: The Huskies have a pretty stout group of linebackers coming in this fall who will immediately challenge for playing time, including Greg Barksdale, Jamaal Bass, Mike Hellams and Cameron Stingily. Those players will try to supplant the likes of Alex Kube, Pat Schiller and Jordan Delegal in the starting lineup. The competition for linebacker will be one of the more interesting ones in August.

3. Kickin’ it: The Huskies had two walk-on kickers this spring -- Alex Faust and Ryan Fillingim -- but neither took a stranglehold on the job heading into the summer. So it might be up to Mat Sims, a three-time all-state player from Kansas, to win the job in the fall.
Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill didn’t hide his affinity for the running back corps that will take the field this fall.

With four players that each have the ability to start and bring something different to the field, Kill likened this year’s running backs not only to the ones from past Northern Illinois teams, but also to the ones he had at Southern Illinois, which at one point included star back Brandon Jacobs.

“I think we’re more like we were at Southern [Illinois] and I think we‘re more like what [Coach] Joe [Novak] had during the very good years,” Kill said during the Mid-American Conference coaches call this week. “I think Cameron Bell and [Jasmin] Hopkins were better than I thought they would be and I think we’ll be as deep in the backfield as we’ve been.”

Chad Spann, last year’s starter, was held out of spring practices because of offseason shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum. That allowed players such as Ricky Crider, Iowa State transfer Bell, and junior college transfer Hopkins to emerge.

Crider was the biggest surprise since he hadn’t played much since before he broke his leg against Wisconsin in 2007. He carried the ball just 43 times in 2008 and was almost nonexistent in 2009 with 10 carries for 37 yards.

But this spring, he ran confidently and was so good that he didn’t play in the final scrimmage because the coaching staff already knew what he could do. As of right now, it appears Crider will be Spann’s backup and could play the same role Me’co Brown played a year ago.

Spann was the workhorse last season with 179 carries for 1,038 yards and 19 touchdowns, but this year could be more of a committee system. Kill has had success shuffling multiple running backs before. At Southern Illinois in 2003, Kill had Muhammad Abdulqaadir, Tom Koutsos and Brandon Robinson, who combined to rush for 2,453 yards and 28 touchdowns. The Salukis ranked sixth nationally in the FCS in rushing offense. A year later, Southern Illinois boasted Brandon Jacobs, Arkee Whitlock and Terry Jackson as their premier backs and ranked third in the FCS with 3,404 yards and 42 touchdowns.

This year’s stable of running Huskies has the chance to compare to stellar running backs corps of the past, including the trio of Michael Turner, A.J. Harris and Adrian Davis in 2003 and Garrett Wolfe, A.J. Harris and Adrian Davis in 2004.

“I think this, without a doubt, with those four youngsters right now, is the best we’ve been since we’ve been here,” Kill said.

What to watch in the MAC this spring

February, 16, 2010
Here's a breakdown of three issues facing each team in the MAC heading into the spring:

Akron Zips

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

" New head coach Rob Ianello takes over an Akron squad that hasn’t had a winning season since 2005. The Zips struggled last year averaging 19.25 points per game on offense and gave up 28.75 points per game on defense. This spring's goal will be to find playmakers to bring both sides of the ball on par with the rest of the league.

" The Zips had a running back by committee system last year, but none of their backs had more than 250 yards. Two of the team’s top three rushers are gone and the rest are freshmen and sophomores. Ianello signed five tailbacks in his first class.

" The defense struggled to put pressure on the quarterback as the Zips finished with 11 sacks. Opponents scored touchdowns on 66 percent of opportunities inside the red zone. Shoring up the defensive line and the linebackers will be an emphasis this spring.

Ball State Cardinals

Spring practice starts: March 24

Spring game: April 17

What to watch:

" Sophomore quarterback Kelly Page tries to regain the starting role after missing the second half of the season with thumb surgery. The Cardinals were winless with him in the lineup, but he improved as the season progressed. Redshirt freshman Aaron Mershman will vie for the role in the spring before highly-touted recruit Keith Wenning joins the competition in the fall.

" Running back MiQuale Lewis and tight end Madaris Grant are both awaiting word from the NCAA about a possible sixth season. Both are team leaders and are the top players at their respective positions.

" Losing defensive coordinator Doug Graber is a blow to the Cardinals. Although he was only with the team for a season, the defense was one of the team's bright spots and got better as the season progressed. The Cardinals have yet to name a replacement.

Bowling Green Falcons

Spring practice starts: March 19

Spring game: April 16

What to watch:

" Replacing quarterback Tyler Sheehan will be one of the biggest chores since he took 95 percent of the snaps for the past three seasons. Aaron Pankratz was the backup last year and the leader heading into spring. But redshirt Matt Schiltz, walk-on Kellen Pagel and December enrollee Caleb Watkins will all be in the mix.

" Freddie Barnes was the Falcons best offensive weapon and it will be hard to find a replacement. Overall, the Falcons lose three of their top five receivers, and one of those returning is running back Wille Geter.

" Rebuilding the defense will be a priority after losing seven players, including the entire line backers corps and three-fourths of the secondary. There is a lot of young talent waiting, it is just a matter of gelling during spring ball.

Buffalo Bulls

Spring practice starts: March 20

Spring game: April 24

What to watch:

" Losing quarterback Zach Maynard, who decided to transfer last month, hurt their offense. He would have been the starter heading into the season, but now sophomore Jerry Davis and redshirt freshman Alex Dennison will duke it out this spring before two freshmen arrive in August.

" The Bulls have to replace top receivers Naaman Roosevelt and Brett Hamlin and have several candidates to do so. Juniors Terrell Jackson, Marcus Rivers and Ed Young, and redshirt freshmen Fred Lee and Alex Neutz will compete for playing time.

" New head coach Jeff Quinn is going to install a more wide-open offensive system at Buffalo, however finding the right guys to play it will be a challenge. There are athletes remaining at Buffalo, but the loss of players such as Maynard and Roosevelt will make the transition slower.

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