DEKALB – As spread, up-tempo offenses continue to storm college football, it’s the players built like Sean Folliard who prove especially useful in countering them.
Folliard, a Prairie Ridge graduate, enters his sophomore season at Northern Illinois as a safety-turned-linebacker. Listed at 6-foot-2 and almost 230 pounds, he stands big enough to burst through an offensive line into the backfield. As a former defensive back, he’s also quick enough to drop into pass coverage or close in to tackle a player in space. Speed is at a premium.
“You’re trying to find those bodies who can run,” NIU linebackers coach Kevin Kane said. “That’s what I kind of look for in linebackers. With how fast the game is nowadays, you have to have it.”
As a freshman last fall, Folliard made a quick adjustment to the Mid-American Conference. In 11 games, he posted 20 tackles, including two for a loss, in his new position for the Huskies.
“At first, I just had to figure out what I was doing,” he said, laughing.
In high school, the Crystal Lake native split time in the secondary and at quarterback in an option offense. But he said he caught up to speed rather quickly after training with former NIU linebacker Alex Kube, a Cary-Grove graduate, at Elite 7 in Lake Barrington. He also enrolled a semester early to participate in spring practices.
The experience playing multiple positions looks to be paying off.
“Anytime you can play pass coverage, break on balls, get picks and make plays, it definitely helps a lot,” Folliard said.
How much his role grows in Year 2 remains unknown. Starters Jamaal Bass, Boomer Mays and Michael Santacaterina are back. As one of only three FBS schools to win 11 or more games in each of the past four seasons, the Huskies aren't exactly a mid-major.
Kane, however, said he considers the competition at linebacker to be “open,” giving Folliard at least a chance at cracking the starting lineup.
What perhaps aids his odds will be his flexibility to play several spots this time around.
During the first two weeks of training camp, Folliard took snaps as the “Mike” inside linebacker, where he played last season. Last week, he shifted to the outside linebacker position.
It’s also likely he will see time on special teams. In December’s MAC Championship loss to Bowling Green, he blocked a kick.
“I just want to help the team in any way I can,” Folliard said. “Wherever the coaches put me is where I’m going to play and where I’m going to work my hardest.”
Kane has noticed the effort on the field, in the film room and in the weight room. Folliard has added almost 40 pounds since arriving on campus.
“He’s a really good student, and he really wants to be a good football player, so he puts in the time to do it,” Kane said. “His desire to want to be good has really taken him to the next spot.”
On the other side of the ball for the Huskies, fellow Prairie Ridge alum Shane Evans and Marian Central grad Scott Taylor look to carve out roles of their own on the offensive line.
A freshman, Evans enrolled a semester early to participate in spring practice. Taylor, meanwhile, enters his third season with the program as a redshirt sophomore.
He appeared in his first game last season Oct. 26 against Eastern Michigan. Although Taylor was a right tackle for the Hurricanes, he has spent most of his time at center or guard. His position change also has been a bit of an adjustment.
“It’s a lot quicker on the outside,” Taylor said. “Inside, guys are a lot bigger. You gotta be on top of them right away. It’s a lot quicker. You gotta snap the ball, step and hit the guy right away. It’s just the difference between speed on the outside and power on the inside.”
During camp, Evans and Taylor have largely taken snaps with the third-string.
NIU opens its season Aug. 28 against Presbyterian.