DEKALB, Ill. – Whether it’s opening holes for the fourth-best rushing offense in the nation, averaging 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 how the head coach Thomas Hammock considers the constitution of its teams.
“The success of our offense was founded on our offensive line, it starts there,” Hammock said. “That’s how we build our football team. We build our team backwards; I said that from the moment I took over this job until the moment I’m gone. We will be always a team that has been built backwards on the offensive line and the defensive line and that will be the strength of our team.
“That’s the way to play in the Midwest, that’s how to play at NIU with the elements and the wind and all these different things. I couldn’t be happier with the guys than we have up front and young people developing behind them.”
Of those guys up front, there are four starters from a season ago: Cox brands (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 kind of continuity up front makes the Huskies feel great about their offensive line heading into the 2022 season.
“These guys have a lot of experience, they’ve got a lot of reps under their belts,” Hammock said. “These four guys started (last year), but Jean Champe started games for us, and we are very confident that Pete Nygra will step in and do a terrific job. We are very comfortable with our front seven, eight guys up front, we feel extremely deep. We feel we can rotate guys, we feel we have guys who can play in multiple positions which is important throughout the season. And we feel we have depth and I think all of those things can hopefully propel us to be great up front.”
In the center, Pete Nygra (North Indianapolis, Ind./Brownsburg) takes the spot previously held by All-MAC artist 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 joining DeKalb.
“From the first day he came here he was a mid-year high schooler, all he did was put his head down and work and be one of the hardest workers in our football team,” Agpalsa said of Nygra. “I think he gets a lot of respect and trust from his teammates by the way he runs his business. He’s a tireless worker, he has a great understanding of our system and I think they’re really excited about it.”
Aligned to the right of Nygra, Potter and Zschernitz both started 20 consecutive games prior to this season, Potter was a 2021 All-MAC Second Team selection while Zschernitz earned All-MAC Third Team honors. To his left, Lippe appeared in all 14 games a season ago, making 13 starts, while Cox has started 29 consecutive games dating back to the Vanderbilt contest in 2019. With that kind of stability, it’s easy to see why Agpalsa thinks that Nygra will integrate 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 game work,” Agpalsa explained. “They’ve spent a lot of time with Pete, and they’ve built that continuity, so I think there’s a lot of trust there.”
As Hammock and Agpalsa were quick to point out, the Huskie offensive line goes well beyond the starting five, with plenty of other talent and experience in the squad.
“Jean Champefrom Brookfield, Wisconsin, he started games for us in 2020 and has been an active starter and backup for us inside,” Agpalsa said. “He’s doing a fantastic job in the early days of camp. Evan Bus from Kimberly, Wisconsin he was a starter for us and was a swing tackle/tight end for us a year ago and has a plethora of reps, game reps from last season he also a wonderful camp. And then Matthew Schooley comes along. He’s doing a great job as a center with our youth group and a lot of these guys are coming.”
After splitting the team into two groups for practice Monday and Tuesday, allowing everyone to get more reps, the Huskies held their first full team practice of camp Wednesday morning. Hammock was extremely pleased with the effectiveness of the session.
“I thought it was fantastic,” Hammock said. “We came off the court eight minutes early and that was the most reps we’ve ever had in my four years here. With the way we’ve structured practice, we were able to get reps from quality, we’re developing guys, young guys are stepping up and showing up and guys are trying to earn their place on the bus, which is exciting for us. The deeper we get, the more chance we have of winning. I I’m excited about this team, I’m excited about their mentality, their approach and the way they work.
“We have to keep stacking the days, we have one more practice (Thursday) and then they have a day off, I love what the NCAA did with the schedule this year, allowing us to have two extra days to recover, it’s going to be important, and we’re going to take full advantage of it.”
The Huskies will be back on the practice field at 7:15 a.m. Thursday morning at Huskie Stadium. See the full camp schedule and links to daily coverage on the Camp Central 2022 page on NIUHuskies.com.
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