By STEVE NITZ
When Northern Illinois football coach Joe Novak arrived in DeKalb before the 1996 season, he knew that in order to turn around the program, he would have to recruit the Chicago area well.
Novak did just that, bringing in players such as Ryan Diem, Michael Turner and Justin Mc-Careins. Jerry Kill and Dave Doeren came in and did the same.
Rod Carey, the current coach, holds the same philosophy, and his second recruiting class, which was announced Wednesday, contained nine prospects from the Land of Lincoln.
Illinois always should be NIU’s bread and butter, no matter who is leading the Huskies’ charge.
However, part of NIU’s recent success on the field has been a result of taking advantage of the fertile recruiting ground in South Florida, and the Huskies did so again this year.
Current Huskies players who hail from South Florida include receivers Tommylee Lewis (Riviera Beach) and Angelo Sebastiano (Coconut Creek), as well as linebacker Jamaal Bass (Miramar).
All three should be key contributors to next season’s team.
In the Class of 2014, five South Florida players signed with NIU – receivers Christian Blake (Fort Lauderdale), David Senior (Fort Lauderdale) and Ezra Saffold (West Palm Beach), as well as defensive backs Deion Hallmon (Weston) and Albert Smalls (Miramar).
The Chicago area is NIU’s backbone when it comes to bringing in talent, but Carey said the Orange Bowl appearance in 2012 helped expand the Huskies brand nationally, as well.
“I think that that opened the door, not just down [in South Florida], but across the rest of the regions, including our own back door here,” he said. “That really opened the door for conversations that maybe we hadn’t had before with other people.”
Even with signature programs such as Florida, national champion Florida State and Miami, not to mention Central Florida, which is coming off of a BCS bowl win, recruiting talent from Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, there still are plenty of good prospects left over for the non-BCS programs.
“There’s players everywhere,” national recruiting analyst Tom Lemming told the Daily Chronicle. “There’s so many good athletes, [the BCS schools] can only take so many. A lot of times they make big mistakes because there’s so many good [players].”
Hallmon, rated a three-star cornerback by both Rivals and 247sports, had the chance to stay in-state and play for the Seminoles or Golden Knights. He could have been part of Louisville’s emergence in the ACC or gone to the Big Ten and played for Nebraska.
All of those schools were among Hallmon’s final choices. Instead, he visited NIU in December and had a good relationship with the coaching staff from the time receivers coach Thad Ward began recruiting him in the spring.
“Every year they compete,” Hallmon said. “It’s not like they’re going to have a bad record, they’re still going to fight and work hard. ... They’re prepared for big games.”
Blake said that seeing a team from the Mid-American Conference make the Orange Bowl opened his eyes. When the Huskies began recruiting him, he looked at the recent history and was impressed by the winning tradition. He committed in July.
“They rarely lose,” Blake said. “I’m a winning guy.”