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NIU coach Thomas Hammock, running back Jay Ducker earn top MAC awards

DeKALB, Ill. – Northern Illinois University head coach Thomas Hammock has been named the 2021 Mid-American Conference Coach of the Year and freshman running back Jay Ducker was selected as the league’s Freshman of the Year as the MAC released its 2021 Postseason Awards and All-Conference teams on Wednesday.

The teams were selected by the conference’s coaches ahead of Saturday’s MAC title game, which will feature the Huskies taking on Kent State. 

“I view this recognition as a tremendous honor for our program,” Hammock said. “It’s a reflection of our players, it’s a reflection of our coaches, and the tremendous job that those groups have done to have the type of success we’ve had this year.”

Freshman safety C.J. Brown led a contingent of 10 Huskies named to one of the conference’s three All-MAC teams by earning first-team honors. Fellow freshman Trayvon Rudolph earned MAC second-team honors at wide receiver and kickoff returner; he was joined on the second team by offensive linemen Nolan Potter and Brayden Patton.

A third offensive lineman, redshirt freshman Logan Zschernitz, was named to the All-MAC third team along with running back Clint Ratkovich and three Huskie defenders: defensive tackle James Ester, linebacker Lance Deveaux Jr. and cornerback Jordan Gandy.

Hammock led the Huskies, the second-youngest team in the Football Bowl Subdivision, to the MAC West Division title and eight wins in 2021, including seven by one score or less. NIU opened the 2021 season with a 22-21 “Boneyard” win at Georgia Tech after scoring a touchdown and two-point conversion with 38 seconds to play. In all, NIU won four games by two points or less and another in overtime en route to an 8-4 record. The Huskies’ third-year mentor is the fourth NIU head coach to be named MAC Coach of the Year, joining a list that includes Bill Mallory (1983), Joe Novak (2002) and Rod Carey (2013).

Northern Illinois Huskies running back Jay Ducker is spun out-of-bounds after a long gain by Ball State Cardinals safety Bryce Cosby during their game Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, in Huskie Stadium at NIU in DeKalb.

Northern Illinois Huskies running back Jay Ducker is spun out-of-bounds after a long gain by Ball State Cardinals safety Bryce Cosby during their game Wednesday, Nov. 10, 2021, in Huskie Stadium at NIU in DeKalb. (Mark Busch –

Ducker, who leads NIU and ranks fourth in the MAC in rushing with 889 yards on 165 carries, has five 100-yard rushing games since taking over tailback duties in the seventh game of the season. He ran for 210 yards on 33 carries versus Bowling Green on October 16 to record the first 200-yard rushing game by a Huskie since 2013 and followed that with a 183-yard game at Central Michigan.

Ducker is the fourth Huskie to be named the MAC Freshman of the Year, but only the second since 1985. He is the first running back to earn the honor for NIU, following quarterbacks Pete Genatempo (1984), Marshall Taylor (1985) and Marcus Childers (2017).

“I’m very happy for Jay,” Hammock said. “He’s a young man that has been through some adversity this year. He started out second on the depth chart, found himself on the compete team a few weeks later and all he’s done is battle back and compete and grind to be the type of player that he has become this season for us, and we really needed him. We had complete confidence in him that he could be this type of player when we recruited him. He got an opportunity and has taken full advantage of it.” 

A second-year freshman safety, Brown leads NIU with 94 tackles, 52 solo. He has made at least seven tackles in nine of the 11 games he has started and has 26 tackles in the last two games to rank 10th in the league in tackles per game.

“C.J. is a guy that came in the first game of the season and he has continued to progress and play at an all-conference level,” Hammock said. “We have great confidence on the back end of our defense with C.J. back there. This is a great honor for him and is a result of the hard work he’s put in to make himself the type of player that he’s become.”

Rudolph earned All-MAC honors for the second straight season and was selected as both a wide receiver and a kickoff return specialist in 2021. He leads NIU with 827 receiving yards on 46 catches with seven receiving touchdowns and has averaged 25.1 yards on 14 kickoff returns with a 100-yard kickoff return score. Rudolph is averaging 107.5 all-purpose yards per game.

“Trayvon has continued to get better for us each and every game, each and every year, and is very deserving of this honor” Hammock said. “The great thing is, he’s still a young player for us so his best football is ahead of him. He’s a dynamic player with the ball in his hands. He’s making himself a more complete all-around football player and that shows in him being selected as a receiver and a kick returner. 

Potter, Patton and Zschernitz have powered a Huskie offense that ranks fifth in the nation in rushing offense with 231.5 yards per game as four different NIU rushers have totaled 10 100-yard rushing games. The Huskies also rank fifth in the country in fewest sacks allowed in 2021.

“We’ve been able to flip the script on offense because of our offensive line play this year,” Hammock said. “Our offensive line has been able to stay healthy, they’ve been able to stay consistent and they’ve enabled us to run the football while protecting the passer.  We went from being a team that was sacked quite a bit the last two years to one of the least sacked teams in the country. All three of those guys are very deserving and a couple other could have been deserving as well.”

Listed as a fullback, Ratkovich showed his versatility – and speed – with a 96-yard touchdown run versus Western Michigan, the second-longest touchdown run in school history. He leads NIU with 13 touchdowns, 11 rushing and two passing.

“I’m so happy for Clint because his value to our offense can’t be measured in statistics,” Hammock said. “I’m glad Clint was able to get recognized for his contributions to our team because it’s not going to show up in the stat sheet.  We’ve got two more games to maximize his skills because he will definitely

Ester, Deveaux Jr. and Gandy have been stalwarts on each of their respective levels of the Huskie defense. A second-year freshman, Ester has made 23 tackles with three tackles for loss and a pair of sacks from his defensive tackle position. Deveaux, a sixth-year senior who missed most of the last two seasons due to injury, returned to his 2018 form in 2021 with 64 tackles, 42 solo, to rank second on the team. He leads NIU in tackles for loss with six while mentoring a group of young linebackers. Gandy earned All-MAC honors for the second straight season and has made 45 tackles, 3.5 for loss. He leads NIU with 10 pass break-ups and has a pair of fumble recoveries.

“Obviously our defense is still a young defense that’s continuing to get better,” Hammock said. “James Ester is a key cog on our defensive line that will continue to get better. He’s a captain and a leader and has a tremendous upside. I’m happy for Lance as a super senior – a young man that came back this season and has provided excellent leadership and stability on that side of the ball. Jordan Gandy is the guy we trust on the back end and has made a lot of plays for us over the last two years and will continue to make plays in the future.”

Seven of NIU’s 10 total honorees – including Ducker – are underclassmen as the group is made up of three second-year freshmen, two redshirt freshmen, two sophomores and three “super seniors”. NIU’s 10 All-MAC selections are the most for the Huskies since 2017.

Source: The Daily Chronicle

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