Northern Illinois senior defensive lineman Weston Kramer talks to a teammate during practice Friday afternoon at Huskie Stadium.
Northern Illinois senior defensive lineman Weston Kramer talks to a teammate during practice Friday afternoon at Huskie Stadium. — Mark Busch -

Leadership to Weston Kramer isn't just about improving others.

For the NIU senior defensive tackle, he said it's about making himself better as well.

"It's pushing me to be better at what I do," Kramer said. "I can't just tell a younger guy to do something and then I don't do the same thing. It makes me better by pushing others. I've seen improvement in myself and others in this leadership role and it's pretty awesome."

Kramer, a 6-foot-1, 290-pound senior Marmion grad, is one of just two seniors this year on a defensive line that may have a pair of true freshmen in the mix for a lot of playing time.

And he's the only senior with experience in the NIU program, as the other is Minnesota State-Moorehead transfer Miles Baggett, a 6-foot-2, 281-pound graduate of Whitney Young.

"It's been a lot more of me picking up a leadership role and showing these young guys what to do and how to do it the right way. The NIU way," Kramer said. "How we do things. A lot of things like that."

Kramer started 11 games last year and made 23 tackles, 2.5 for a loss. In 2018 he started 13 games and had a career-best 38 tackles to go with 4.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. He also played in all 13 games as a true freshman in 2017.

Defensive line coach Jordan Gigli said having Weston back for his senior campaign has helped.

"Weston being back has helped," Gigli said. "He has played as much football as anyone in our program. We have a ton of freshmen and he has a done a nice job in sharing info and being a role model on and off the field to provide good leadership on what it takes to be successful at this level."

Defensive coordinator Derrick Jackson called his interior line a multi-headed monster with Kramer, Baggett, James Ester (6-foot-2, 294 pound redshirt freshman from Detroit), Demond Taylor (6-foot-2, 296 pound redshirt freshman from East St Louis) and Jeffrey Griffin (6-foot-0, 288 pound sophomore from Homewood-Flossmoor).

"We've put a premium on being more physical at the point of attack," Jackson said. "We want to be more disruptive in terms of displacing the line of scrimmage, more pressure of the quarterback, more TFLs, that sort of things. Things we didn't do consistently enough a year ago."

Jackson said true freshman Raishein Thomas (6-foot-4, 257 pounds, from Racine, Wisconsin) and Pierce Oppong (6-foot-3, 265 pounds, from Bloomington, Minnesota) have impressed during camp.

Jackson said Oppong was quick and athletic, and was impressed with Thomas as well.

"They fit well with us and we're pleased in every sense of the word," Jackson said. "(Thomas) has done a great job establishing a guy at the end position that can anchor our point of attack. He has length to disrupt the passing game and force quarterbacks to throw through trash. There were not as many batted balls at the front line as we would have liked a year ago. And he's a young man that's only going to get better because of a great work ethic, a great motor."

In addition to the freshmen, both Gigli and Jackson said returners Michael Kennedy (6-foot-1, 220-pound junior from Mt. Carmel), Cortez Hogans (6-foot-3, 258-pound, sophomore from Palatine) and Caleb Wright (6-foot-3, 26-pound0 sophomore from Wisconsin) should see time in the rotation at end.

Overall, Gigli said he had high hopes from the group this year.

"I think the way they are playing with and for each other, I know it's a cliche but they enjoy being around each other," Gigli said. "At the end of the year, on Dec. 18, if you tell me this group showed up and played together, improved every day and was a physical group of tough guys that I know we can be... There's no specific stat tied to that. If we improve every day in two months I'll be satisfied with this group."