NIU wide receiver Cole Tucker (18) returns a punt against the Ball State Cardinals in DeKalb Oct. 5.
NIU wide receiver Cole Tucker (18) returns a punt against the Ball State Cardinals in DeKalb Oct. 5. — Sean King for Shaw Media

DeKALB – Treat adversity the same as prosperity.

NIU wide receivers coach Tony Sorrentino said that is what the coaching staff preaches to his Huskies. And he said junior wideout Cole Tucker has gotten the message.

"He took what we said and he applied it," Sorrentino said. "The thing about him is he owns this offense. We can put him at X, we can put him at W, we can put him at Z. He knows all three positions and he's a great special teams guy, punt returner. So he's been able to adapt. Whatever we need, he's that Swiss Army knife for us."

The former DeKalb standout led the Huskies with 38 receptions and 531 yards last season, adding a touchdown catch. The 6-foot, 2-inch redshirt junior also handled punt returns for the team for the second straight year.

Tucker said he's trying to push that from his mind and is focused on improving.

"I try not to think about that," Tucker said. "I just come in with the same mentality as when I was a freshman or when I was trying to prove myself. You have to act like you haven't arrived yet, which I haven't. Although I was the leading receiver I didn't have that great of a year last year."

Training hit a bump late last month not just for Tucker but the whole team. The team was one of three NIU athletic programs put on quarantine for two weeks. When it ended Oct. 2, the Huskies immediately started training for the recently announced fall season, which starts Nov. 4 at home against Buffalo.

"It was tough. You had to find creative ways to work out an do some activity whether it's just pushups, situps, runs outside," Tucker said. "That's about all you could do at that time. It was more tough to stay football-ready, but once we found out we're playing, we kind of ramped it back up to get ready for the fall camps."

Of course, when the quarantine started the Huskies were still planning on playing in the spring, not the fall, as the MAC had not announced its decision to reverse course and play this calendar year.

"It was exciting to find out we're playing," Tucker said. "I think all of us were planning on playing even though we really didn't know. We have a group of guys that's ready to play whenever. We would have played in the spring if we had to but we're grateful to play in the fall. Even though it will be pretty cold outside in November and December in the Midwest."

Tucker said he worked on getting stronger and quicker in the offseason.

Sorrentino said he is definitely coming into camp faster and his route running has gotten better as well.

"I always tell him if he can run a good route, catching is easy," Sorrentino said. "He worked on his feet, he's a great route runner, and he's got great hands so he can get separation from defenders maybe better than when he was here beforehand."

Sorrentino said Tucker has also become more vocal this year.

"He's got the full respect of the team and the coaching staff because he does it right on and off the field," Sorrentino said. "His work ethic is excellent. His dad played here, he's from here. He's fully invested in NIU and the football program. Super smart, football smart. He's very coachable, one of the best in the room, best on the offense, and you can coach him up. You can get on him and he's not going to take it personal. He just wants to get better."

Tucker isn't the only former Barb on the roster this year - in fact, four other DeKalb players are on the team. Sophomore cornerback Jordan Gandy transferred from South Dakota State. Freshman linebacker Jalon Redmond joins redshirt freshman linebacker Michael Newman and redshirt sophomore safety Brianjay Ross.

Freshman linebacker Manny Dominguez from Sycamore is also on the team.

"DeKalb in years past, they've got more guys going to the collegiate level," Tucker said. "Before that it was really not that much. But getting guys on the same college and playing with each other, that's pretty unique. Jordan transferred in, he's a great and talented player, and all those freshman guys are coming up and are very skilled. It's great to see those guys get an opportunity."

Being from DeKalb, Sorrentino said, has a role in why Tucker is the team's main punt returner. Sorrentino said Tucker may also return kicks this year.

"He's from DeKalb so nobody knows this wind better than him," Sorrentino said. "Night games in November, December, worst-case scenario we'll fair catch it and take it where they kick it. He knows the wind, it's not too big for him, he's been doing it for a while. He'll continue to do that for us."

Sorrentino said he's excited to see what an improved Tucker will do this year.

"It's hard with six games, stats don't matter. Just the wins," Sorrentino said. "So I told him whatever he can do. When the ball is in the air, some people call that a 50-50 ball. As a receivers coach that's an 80-20 ball. 80% we're going to catch it, 10% we're getting (pass interference) and 10% the defense might get lucky. He's just got to catch the ones that are thrown to him and his run after catch is what I'm excited to see this year."