The way Kansas University’s defense sees it, the best way to frustrate a veteran quarterback like Northern Illinois senior Chandler Harnish is to mix things up.
“A guy with that kind of experience, you have to disguise a lot of things, because he can weed out your defense very easily,” KU junior cornerback Greg Brown said. “We have to try to show a lot of different blitz formations and disguise some of our coverages. We have to throw a lot of different things at him and keep his mind moving.”
Sounds good. However, doing that could play right into Harnish’s hands.
Harnish, a 6-foot-2, 221-pound load from Bluffton, Ind., is entering his fourth season as NIU’s starting quarterback and is coming off of his best year.
In 2010, while leading the Huskies to 11 wins, including a victory in the Humanitarian Bowl, Harnish broke a 47-year-old school record for total offense by racking up 2,530 yards through the air and 836 more on the ground. Those numbers included 28 touchdowns — 21 passing, 7 rushing — and just five interceptions.
As he enters 2011, Harnish is in line to make like former KU quarterback Todd Reesing and rewrite NIU’s entire record book for passing.
While Harnish’s physical skills and ability to run and throw make him a chore for opposing defenses to handle, his mental fortitude makes him darn near impossible to stop. One KU assistant coach said, as a fan of football, he enjoyed watching Harnish compete on film and compared him to Denver Broncos quarterback and former Florida Gators star Tim Tebow, both in terms of style of play and passion for the game.
This year, the senior QB has had more time than ever to devote to his craft. After graduating with a degree in business management last May, Harnish enrolled in NIU’s MBA program. He said playing football while going to grad school was a piece of cake compared to what he’s done the last three seasons.
“To be honest, I feel like a professional football player,” he said. “I spend most of my time preparing for the next team. Grad school’s a little more laid-back, and it’s more evening classes so I get to spend a lot of time during the day watching film.”
Doing so, Harnish said, provides him ample time to break down his upcoming opponents. One thing he has found already is that the more people try to change things up on him, the more success he tends to have.
“You have seen everything if you’ve been a four-year starter,” Harnish said. “Sometimes teams try to disguise it, but if you do the necessary film study, you see that everyone reverts back to what they do best, and then you see what they do in certain situations. A lot of times teams try to get too tricky, and then they mess up. With an experienced guy like myself, that’s where we try to take advantage of those mess-ups. If you can, that just kills a defense.”
Harnish’s sharp mind has been a major asset throughout his career. But not just on the field.
“This is my third head coach in college,” he said of first-year NIU coach Dave Doeren, who was an assistant at Kansas from 2002-05. “And it’s been, by far, the easiest transition.”
Harnish helped make it that way by taking point on welcoming Doeren to town after he spent the past five seasons at Wisconsin, three of them as the Badgers’ defensive coordinator.
“We knew right away when we got here just how focused a player and person he is,” Doeren said of his QB. “You don’t have many discussions about maturity with him. He just wants to be a sponge and get better each week. Those are the things that stood out, just how serious he is and how good he wants to be.”
Last week, during NIU’s 49-26 victory over Army, Harnish completed 12 of 19 passes for 195 yards and five TDs. He also added 94 yards and a TD on 11 carries.
While that was a nice start, Harnish, who has aspirations of playing pro football, admitted that a loss this weekend at Kansas would make it all for naught.
“We want to be the next Boise State or TCU,” he said. “We want to be a giant-killer. That’s what we’re trying to do.”