Everywhere Northern Illinois senior defensive end Larry English goes people receive a welcoming whats going on greeting and a firm shake from his bear-claw like hands.
English strolls through the Yordon Center, the NIU football facility, like a president about to enter a State of the Union Address.
Confidence and leadership emanate from English, understandable for an athlete with a plethora of pre-season accolades, trophies in his case and high-light reel plays. As English prepares for his senior campaign he has been named to the prestigious Bronko Nagurski Trophy Watch List for the second consecutive year.
A fitting accolade for a player that was named the Mid-American Conferences Most Valuable Player, was 11th in the nation with 10. 5 sacks, and had 17 tackles for a loss in 2007. More impressive than the eye-popping statistics is the fact English received the Vern Smith Leadership Award as MAC MVP despite the Huskies suffering through a 3-9 season in which they won just one conference game.
It was hard to enjoy the personal accolades when the team is struggling, English said. Id still walk off the field with an unsettled feeling. This year, as a team, we need to concentrate on being healthy and work to remember what the winning feeling felt like.
Even though the Huskies battled through a rash of injuries and endured a dismal season in former-head coach Joe Novaks last season, thoughts of simply mailing it in and not going all out on every down never crossed Englishs mind.
The Aurora, IL native had too much pride to give up and too much respect for the game. The fiber of his character could be defined by how hard he played football.
Its the only way I know how to play, English said. Im not going to go out there and quit. That is what this game has ingrained in me; it just comes natural at this point.
What comes natural to English has been the innate ability to rush the passer. In the last two seasons as a full-time starter, English has amassed 22.5 sacks and 33 tackles for a loss. At 6-foot-3, 254 pounds, his first step off the edge is electric, in a flash he explodes off the line.
This season under new coach Jerry Kill, English will still play defensive end, but there might be a twist in the way the Huskies utilize their most dangerous weapon.
Previously English was strictly a right end. This year English will flip flop depending on offensive line match-ups.
Kill has spent more time preparing to play against English then to he has coaching him. As the former Southern Illinois head coach, Kill led the Salukis to a come-from behind 34-31 win at Huskies Stadium last year in week 2.
From the visiting sidelines, Kill saw English rack up seven tackles-two tackles for a loss-and a sack.
Larry is quick and athletic, Kill said. He plays with real passion and desire. Hes a great person and I expect great things from him this year.
When asked if there will be an adjustment period after playing for Novak his first three seasons, English didnt hesitate to endorse the new Huskies head coach and staff.
Weve got comfortable with the new staff already, English said. I think they will be a pretty good fit here, theyve built a pretty good relationship with the players.
Along with the quick adjustment to a new staff, the potential position adjustment that awaits English when camp rolls around in August isnt a major concern. He knows getting to the quarterback is his meal ticket, and with dreams of playing in the NFL one day he knows the best way to get there; to rush the passer.
Ever since I was little I wanted to play in the NFL, it is my goal, English said. Im at the point now where I realize the next step is almost here. But at the same time I realize the closer I get the closer I get to the window of opportunity closing. My mindset is to do everything I can while I have this opportunity to set me up for the future.
From talking with former NIU teammate Garrett Wolfe, who was a rookie with the Chicago Bears last season, English has an idea of what to expect from the NFL, where everyone moves at super-human speeds. For an NFL player, every snap, every rep in practice, every lift during the off-season brings you closer to hanging onto your livelihood. It might sound cut throat, but it is a job needed to keep food on the table.
Of course a lot of guys are bigger and stronger in the NFL, English said. Garrett said everyone is fighting for a position out there. Fighting, scratching and clawing. There are only 53 spots and the competition is more intense. Everyone at the professional level plays fast; they play like each play is their last play.
With the potential to play in the NFL on the horizon, English remembers the way his 2006 season ended.
It was a feeling the NIU defensive end wasnt used to; complete helplessness. On a clear, cool night, English, then a junior laid on the turf at the 2006 Poinsettia Bowl, unable to get up.
Medical staff rushed to the scene. English knew something was wrong, in his knee there was a pain hed never felt. The doctors did their tests and told him the injury was a torn ACL, it was his first major injury.
Because he was unable to simply shrug off the injury and limp off the field, English said it was a humbling experience. Perhaps he was able to make a smooth recovery in 2007 because of the mindset he adopted that very night in the locker room of Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, CA.
When they told me what it was my mindset was to work towards getting healthy as soon as possible, English said. It was the first serious injury I ever had. I remember being carted off the filed. When I watch a game at home I always see that guy carted off, and now here Im that guy. I was disappointed by it. It happened at the perfect time though; I got the surgery and recovered in time for the season.
The timing of the injury proved to be a silver lining. English played the entire 2007 season and started every game. Even though he was given a clean bill of health, he said the first couple games of he felt his way around. That is when he decided to ditch the knee brace he was wearing, which changed his mental approach.
I wasnt playing instinctively and fast so I took off the knee brace and just put it out of my head, English said.
What followed was another stellar effort on the field, highlighted by a week 4, 42-35 win over Idaho in which English put NIU on his shoulders and brought home the first victory of the season. He thwarted a furious Vandals rally with a game ending sack, one of a school record five sacks on the day. English also had a career best 12 tackles, five for a loss, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery for a touchdown.
It was a performance that earned him the MAC West Defensive Player of the Week and national recognition as the Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week.
Afterwards, English was content and exhausted from a physical game.
I slept real well after that game because I was tired; physically it was a tough game, English said. I felt it the rest of the week, but it was worth it. It was worth walking off the field with a win.
English brought home the win against Idaho. He rose as a leader. When asked if hes always been outspoken with teammates and presidential sounding in interviews, like a determined leader, English didnt hesitate to answer.
At this point I have to be a vocal leader, English said. A lot of guys on the team look to me and some of the other upperclassmen when things get tough its my duty to be vocal with guys to make sure they keep working.
Reprinted from the 2008 MAC Football Preview Magazine
Available Now - MAC Report Online.com's 2008 MAC Football Preview e-magazine, featuring the most in-depth analysis and feature-packed preseason MAC football publication ever! Get your copy today by clicking here.