DEKALB, Ill. – Whether it was opening holes for the fourth-best rushing attack in the country, which averaged 241.4 yards per game, or allowing the second-fewest sacks in the nation, just 0.79 per game, the NIU Huskie offensive line was a backbone for many of the accomplishments of the 2021 season, which is just the way head coach Thomas Hammock envisions his teams being built.
“The success of our offense was predicated because of our offensive line, it starts there,” said Hammock. “That’s how we build our football team. We build our team inside out; I’ve said that from the moment I took over this job until the moment I’m no longer here. We will always be a team that’s built inside out on the offensive line and defensive line and that’s going to be the strength of our team.
“That’s how you have to play in the Midwest, that’s how you have to play at NIU with the elements, the wind and all those different things. I couldn’t be happier with the guys we have up front and the young guys developing behind them.”
Among those guys up front are four starters from a season ago: Marques Cox (Peoria, Ill./Peoria) at left tackle, JJ Lippe (Milwaukee, Wis./Whitefish Bay) at left guard, Logan Zschernitz (Spencer, Wis./Spencer) at right guard and Nolan Potter (Cedar Rapids, Iowa/Washington) at right tackle. That type of continuity up front has the Huskies feel very good about their offensive line heading into the 2022 season.
“Those guys have a lot of experience, they have a lot of reps under their belt,” Hammock said. “Those four guys started (last year), but John Champe has started games for us, and we feel very confident that pete nigra is going to step in there and do a tremendous job. We have great comfort with our top seven, eight guys up front, we feel like we’re extremely deep. We feel like we can rotate guys, we feel like we have guys that can play multiple positions, which is important throughout the season. And we feel like we have depth and I think all those things hopefully can propel us to be great up front.”
At center, pete nigra (North Indianapolis, Ind./Brownsburg) steps into the spot previously held by All-MAC performer Brayden Patton. Nygra saw action in three games last season and NIU offensive line coach Daryl Agpalsa has been impressed with his work ethic since he has arrived in DeKalb.
“From the very first day he got here, he was a mid-year, high school kid, all he has done is put his head down and work and been one of the hardest workers on our football team,” Agpalsa said of Nygra. “I think he’s getting a lot of respect and trust from his teammates by the way he goes about his business. He’s a tireless worker, he has a great understanding of our system, and I think they’re really excited about it. “
Lining up to Nygra’s right, both Potter and Zschernitz have started 20 consecutive games heading into this season, Potter was a Second Team All-MAC selection in 2021 while Zschernitz earned All-MAC Third Team honors. To his left of him, Lippe appeared in all 14 games a season ago, making 13 starts, while Cox has started 29-straight games dating back to the Vanderbilt contest in 2019. With that type of stability, its easy to see why Agpalsa believes Nygra will fit seamlessly.
“I think with the other four having such great continuity with each other, they can see things and have the ability to transition to make the play work,” Agpalsa explained. “They’ve spent a lot of time with Pete, and they have built that continuity, so I think there’s a lot of trust there.”
As both Hammock and Agpalsa were quick to point out, the Huskie offensive line goes well beyond the five starters, with plenty of other talent, and experience, in the group.
“John Champefrom Brookfield, Wisconsin, he started games for us in 2020 and has been an active starter and backup for us inside,” said Agpalsa. “He’s doing a fantastic job in the first few days of camp. Evan Buss from Kimberly, Wisconsin, he’s been a starter for us and been a swing, tackle/tight end for us a year ago and has a plethora of reps, game reps since last season, he is having a wonderful camp too. And then Matthew Schooley is coming along. He’s doing a great job as our center with our younger group and lots of those guys are coming along.”
After splitting the team into two groups for practice on Monday and Tuesday, allowing everyone to get more reps, the Huskies held their first full team workout of camp on Wednesday morning. Hammock was extremely pleased with the efficiency of the session.
“I thought it was fantastic,” Hammock said. “We got off the field eight minutes early and this was the most reps we have ever gotten in my four years here. With the way we have structured practice we have been able to get quality reps, we are getting guys developed, young guys are stepping up and showing up and guys are trying to earn their way onto the bus which is exciting for us. The deeper we are, the better chance we have to win. I’m excited about this team, I’m excited about their mentality , their approach, and the way they go to work.
“We have to continue to stack days, we have one more practice (Thursday), then they get a day off, I love what the NCAA did with the schedule this year, allowing us to have two extra days for recovery, that is going to be important, and we are going to take full advantage of that.”
The Huskies will be back on the practice field at 7:15 am on Thursday morning at Huskie Stadium. See the complete camp schedule and links to daily coverage on the 2022 Camp Central page on NIHUskies.com.
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