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Preseason Opponent Preview: NIU’s defense

NCAA Football: Quick Lane Bowl-Duke vs Northern Illinois Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 Northern Illinois Huskies featured one of the better defenses throughout the Group of 5 last season, but with only six starters returning, the 2018 squad has plenty of holes to fill if they plan on repeating last years success.

​Despite losing defensive stalwarts Bobby Jones IV and Jawuan Johnson, NIU won’t have to worry about a lack of veteran experience as they return the MAC defensive player of the year, Sutton Smith. The 6’1” 237 lb defensive end led the nation in sacks in 2017, accumulating 14 total on the season, a new school record. The former high school running back is a speedy threat off the right side with knack for forcing fumbles. A human wrecking ball in his own right, the junior is likely to be one of the best ends the Utes will face in all of 2018.

​In the backfield, safety Mykelti Williams returns as a solid commodity for NIU. The junior recorded an impressive 59 solo tackles last season and was a key-factor in the Huskies ranking as one of the top defenses in the nation in 2017. Williams did however show a tendency to give up occasional big plays and isn’t necessarily a ball hawker, recording a single interception all season.

​Corners Jalen Embry and Albert Smalls are poised to be one of the better duos in the MAC. Both can disrupt a passing route and have showcased dynamic speed, which could prove problematic for a relatively young and inexperienced core of Ute receivers.

​NIU has enough starting talent to cause problems for Utah’s offense. The question remains if they have enough depth to compete for a full four quarters without Utah pulling away.