DEKALB, Ill. – Jerry Kill admits it.
Chandler Harnish was asked to do too much as a redshirt freshman in 2008, Kill’s first season as head coach at Northern Illinois.
But Harnish was so capable with his ability as a dual-threat quarterback, toughness to battle back from injury and willingness to be a leader.
It didn’t matter that Harnish was learning on the fly and that he was experiencing what he called a roller coaster season. Harnish still produced one of the best seasons by a freshman in school history.
Harnish’s 2,067 yards of total offense were the most by a freshman and NIU’s eighth-highest single-season total. The Norwell graduate led the team in passing (1,528 yards) and rushing (539), making him the first quarterback to lead the team in rushing since 1990. He was the first freshman since 1997 to lead the team in passing, rushing and total offense.
And that was despite missing all or parts of five games with a foot injury.
When he returned – still not healthy – he guided the Huskies to four victories and a berth in the Independence Bowl.
Now, with Harnish the unquestioned starter and leader, even more is expected.
He was instrumental in what we did last year, Kill said. We wouldn’t have been in the bowl game if it wasn’t for his play. He did a great job for a freshman, and our expectations for Chandler are higher and higher. He’s had a great spring and a good camp.
We’ll go as far as he takes us – that’s really what it comes down to.
No pressure there.
Harnish, a native of Bluffton, insists he wants all the demands, responsibilities and expectations that come with being a starting quarterback.
He’s more prepared to handle the job.
Much to learn
Harnish thought he was ready to make a difference after throwing for nearly 5,000 yards and 48 touchdowns at Norwell, where he finished his career with a runner-up finish at state.
He was wrong.
As we started in the summer, I found out in a hurry that I was nowhere near what I needed to be as a quarterback, Harnish said. It was a very humbling experience because I felt like coming out of high school, I’m the man. I really wasn’t. I was having trouble throwing the ball. I was really nervous, stressed out.
He spent 2007 as a redshirt, learning and watching the Huskies struggle. In their final season under Joe Novak, NIU finished 2-10, its worst record since 1997.
When Novak retired and Kill was hired, Harnish was forced to learn a new system. He adapted well enough and showed enough promise to earn the start for the 2008 opener against Minnesota in place of injured projected starter Dan Nicholson. Harnish was solid in his debut, completing 17 of 29 passes for 326 yards and two touchdowns as NIU lost 31-27 to the Gophers.
But that momentum didn’t last.
On the second series in Week 2, Harnish was fighting for extra yards when he was tackled and sprained a joint in his foot. The injury knocked him out for the next three games.
It could have been a blessing in disguise for me because I was really able to take a step back, understand mentally what’s going on in the game of football and that helped with my development, too, Harnish said.
With injuries to quarterbacks Nicholson (shoulder) and DeMarcus Grady (ankle), Harnish was forced to return to the field before he was ready, he said.
He didn’t complain; he led the Huskies to three consecutive victories by completing 57 percent of his passes and gaining 454 total yards. The final five games weren’t as smooth. Harnish was effective running the ball (357 yards, four TDs, 4.8 ypg) but threw seven of his nine interceptions in the stretch as NIU finished 6-7.
There was no consistency whatsoever, he said. I’d play well one week and I wouldn’t play so well the next week.
Harnish used that as motivation for the offseason. It helped that he knew he’d be the man in 2009.
Becoming a leader
Defensive end Larry English, a first-round draft pick, essentially passed the leadership role to Harnish after the bowl game last season, pulling Harnish aside and telling him it was his team now.
Harnish didn’t need more coaxing.
He organized offseason drills, even got teammates together in a gym to throw during the winter, and studied film. Teammate Pat Schiller said Harnish was always the first in line for workouts and quickly garnered respect from older teammates.
Harnish already had secured his spot as a leader in the huddle.
You wouldn’t expect how young he is for the type of leadership he has, especially in the huddle, fifth-year senior center Eddie Adamski said. He’s telling people to pay attention, eyes up, (get) in and out of the huddle.’ So he’s got the leadership down.
You definitely feed off the quarterback.
Maturing as a QB
By many accounts, Harnish has gotten better.
Kill said the difference in Harnish’s mental approach and knowledge of the game is night and day from last season.
Knowing our offensive philosophy mentally helps me physically because it gives me the confidence that I know where I’m going with the ball if I see a certain coverage or a certain front or a blitz or whatever happens within the course of a game, Harnish said. If I can have that mental ability to just pick and choose where I’m going and having that confidence to throw it on time, trust in routes, receivers, it makes us better for that.
Quarterbacks coach Pat Poore said he hopes that confidence and game experience will help Harnish cut down on turnovers. That’s the No. 1 goal this fall.
Harnish didn’t have an interception in his first four games but threw two apiece in four of the last six. NIU lost four of the final six games, including 17-10 loss to Louisiana Tech in the Independence Bowl.
He wants to be as good as he can be, and he has good talent, Poore said. He’s taken that next step of development of the mental part of the game and decision-making, situations. That’s so important. We looked at last year’s season and in games we lost, our turnovers hurt us. That’s an area that’s experience. You don’t make those mistakes again in that same situation. You give yourself an opportunity to win.
And a chance to kick-start the program.
The Huskies had seven consecutive winning seasons from 2000 to 2006, and many think Harnish could be the player to lead them back to prominence.
He’s one of the biggest parts of the rebuilding process, Schiller said. We move with him. He’s our leader. He’s going to be a big part of our success this year and for years to come.