Column: NU football season in the air

Column: NU football season in the air

Coach Rocky Hager trotted onto Parsons Field Saturday under an overcast sky that more closely resembled a bleak fall afternoon than a sunny day in early spring. But when Northeastern’s football coach blew his whistle and yelled “On the line!” to his players, it was an action that would bring a little bit of sunshine to every Husky fan.

It was the start of the football squad’s Spring Scrimmage game. Get psyched Husky-ville, the 2007 football season is a-comin’!

“It’s been a good spring,” Hager said at the pre-game reception (hosted by Chicken Lou’s, a pleasant surprise for the always-hungry offensive lineman). “The spring game is kind of a culmination of the amount of repetitions you’ve had, and it’s a good recognition of the hard work you’ve been doing all spring and bringing it to a close.”

Entering the warm-up game, the Hager-led squad was “a little bit sparse,” said the former North Dakota State coach, who will enter his fourth season with NU. The reason was a few injuries, particularly at the linebacker position, where only two players (senior A.J. Lillie and sophomore David Akinniyi) were playing.

“We’ll be a little bit more restrictive than we have in previous years,” Hager said. “In the past we’ve gone one versus one, two versus two. Today, we’ll probably only go with three sets, the number of plays you try to get is somewhere in between 50 and 70. And today, we’ll try to land somewhere between 30 and 40. We don’t want to tax our linebackers and place anybody in danger.”

The most difficult player to replace from last year’s squad will be tight end Kendrick Ballantyne, whose successful two-point conversion catch that sealed Northeastern’s victory over New Hampshire in last year’s homecoming has become the stuff of legend.

Junior Brian Mandeville was the top candidate to replace him, but he has been out all spring with a shoulder injury. Sophomores Conor Gilmartin-Donohue and Ty Sibert will get looks at the position, which has to be productive for the Huskies to compete in the tough Colonial Athletic Association.

Other areas of the offense, particularly the offensive line, should be strong at the beginning of the season. The offense has a good mixture of experience and fresh talent, boasting four returning starters and a pair of freshmen in Greg Martell (Mansfield, Mass.) and Jason Lane (Derry, N.H.) who probably won’t start but are so unbelievably large for 18-year olds that one can’t help but wonder when they will see playing time.

“We’ve actually had some young guys challenge the two or three-year starters,” Hager said.

Our two quarterbacks – juniors Anthony Orio and John Sperrazza – have continued to improve and will do so before the season starts. Orio, who is the pinpoint passer compared to the gun-slinging style of Sperrazza, will most likely start the season atop the depth chart.

Look out for redshirt freshman Alex Dulski, who on the final drive of the scrimmage commanded the offense to its only touchdown with the help of a 31-yard pass completion to junior wide reciever Chris Plum.

The defensive line, described by Hager as “young,” should provide a glimpse of the future. Junior Wil Colon will return at defensive end and “has shown progress,” Hager said. Fellow classmate Jason Vega, who finished second on the team for tackles for loss with six, should continue to improve after moving from defensive end to linebacker last fall.

In the trenches, senior Corey Thomas holds down the line at nose guard, and is the leader of a group Hager said, “has a chance to contribute much this season.”

Most of the team’s offense should be generated in the backfield, which features returning senior 1,000-yard rusher Maurice Murray and versatile junior scatback Alex Broomfield. Together, the duo brings a good mix of Murray’s bruising running and Broomfield’s quick feet and sharp cuts. Expect redshirt freshman Kurtis Hart to contribute this year. Hager said Hart “has shown good things,” and he feels “good about the way he’s progressed.”

And it is with that word – progressed, that we can summarize what might be a turn-around year for Hager and Northeastern. Every facet, from the backfield to the special teams, has returning players who showed a lot of promise in 2006.

That promise is spearheaded by a humble attitude from a humble coach, who has been characterized as a “teacher” and not a “yeller” by some of the parents in attendance.

“We’ll play anywhere that clock is running and the score is being kept,” Hager said before the scrimmage. “Which is all that truly matters.”

Maybe for us Husky fans, that number on the left side of the Parsons field scoreboard will be greater than the one on the right.

– Matt Foster can be reached for comment at [email protected]

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