Ryan Graham

Ryan Graham, here playing against Boise State in the 2015 Poinsettia Bowl, is one of two players to start at quarterback for Northern Illinois this season.


Northern Illinois has started two different quarterbacks — junior Ryan Graham and sophomore Daniel Santacaterina — this season.

On the surface, that may seem like a challenge for Nebraska in terms of preparation.

On the other hand, “They’re very similar guys,” Husker defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “They’re similar physically. They’re about the same height, about the same weight. The offense doesn’t seem to change at all, based on one or the other.

“The both run that offense and manage it very well.”

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Santacaterina, of Geneva, Illinois, led Northern Illinois to last week’s 38-10 win against Eastern Illinois, completing 23 of 34 passes for 252 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. Graham (6-2, 210) started the opener, a 23-20 loss to Boston College, and completed 15 of 38 passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns, with one pick.

While the Huskies have in the past run a pro-style offense, this year they’re more of a spread operation, in a similar vein to the Huskers’ first two opponents.

“A lot of spread stuff with the fly sweep, the run off of the fly sweep, the quarterback run off of the fly sweep and with faking all that and throwing what we’ve been getting a dose of every week — bubble screens and smoke routes to the outside receivers,” head coach Mike Riley said. “They do a nice job with it. They have speed on the perimeter."

Riley identified junior wide receiver D.J. Brown as the primary recipient of the fly sweep and a dangerous weapon. He has nine catches for 119 yards and a touchdown through two games.

NIU’s leading receiver has a familiar name. That’s Chad Beebe, son of former Chadron State and NFL wide receiver Don Beebe.

Diaco not a fan of linemen downfield: In discussing the Huskies, Diaco pointed out that the program runs a lot of run-pass option. 

"And why wouldn't they? The most inequitable rule in the history of college football was activated," he said. "The offensive line can run off the ball, with their back foot 3 yards downfield, so now all of the plays look like run. But look, hey, America loves points." 

Booker has "ultimate confidence" in Pierson-El: Senior wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El’s adventurous game at Oregon has been well-documented. He fair-caught a punt at the 5-yard line and another late in the game that he said afterward he wished he had returned.

Special teams coordinator Scott Booker is not the least bit concerned about Pierson-El, who as a freshman led the nation in punt return yardage.

“De’Mornay has done a great job for the University of Nebraska (since) before I got here,” Booker said. “There’s going to be plays where everybody looks at it and, ‘Ah man, I wish I had that back, I wish I had this back.’ But I have the ultimate confidence in De’Mornay that he’s going to make the right decision for us and make the correct play. Sometimes the correct play is to make a fair catch or a ‘Peter’ call."

Booker said the Huskers want to let a punt hit and and bounce if it’s going to land deeper than NU's 8.

Pierson-El doesn’t have a punt return yet this season, and the Huskers have just one (from Stanley Morgan) for 1 yard.

Bradley poised for duty on coverage unit: On Monday, Riley said freshman running back Jaylin Bradley is set to play Saturday against Northern Illinois on special teams and running backs coach Reggie Davis added that the Bellevue native had been working on coverage units.

On Tuesday night, Booker didn’t want to reveal Bradley’s exact role, but reiterated that he likes what the freshman brings to the table.

“Personnel decisions, with all that, I’m going to leave that to Coach, but Jaylin’s been a part of our special teams since August, and if we need him to go in there, I know he’ll go in there and do a great job,” Booker said.

Bradley played on coverage units in high school at Bellevue West, and Booker last month said his hips and ability to break down and tackle in space caught his eye.

“We like to see guys that are not just playing one position, because usually, when you bring skill guys in to play college football, they’re going to have to play some special teams,” Booker said.

— Steven M. Sipple and Parker Gabriel


Sports writer

Parker joined the Journal Star as the University of Nebraska football beat writer in August 2017. He previously covered Montana State athletics for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 2012.

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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