The sting of missing the playoffs in 2016 – thanks to an 0-3 finish to the regular season -- was a driving force for the Western Illinois football team this season.
So the Leathernecks simply took care of business in 2017, making sure the FCS selection committee had a no-brainer decision. The Leathernecks used an impressive collection of calm, cool veteran leaders and a breakout star on offense to go with some fresh-faced contributors to win eight games, including a school-record six on the road.
A team that was plagued by slow starts most of the season was at its best when finishing an opponent. The finishing kick that was missing in 2016 was apparent this fall.
Despite a first-round playoff loss at Weber State, there’s no doubt this team will be remembered in Macomb for a long time.
Here are five burning questions facing the Leathernecks in 2018.
- How in the world do the Leathernecks replace all-world linebacker Brett Taylor?
To call Taylor accomplished would be an understatement. The Macomb native and senior linebacker is among three finalists for the Buck Buchanan Award as the top FCS defensive player in the country. He led the nation in tackles per game, and he made plays all year long. He adjusted seamlessly to the team’s new 3-4 alignment this season. More impressively, kids around Macomb dressed up for Halloween as Taylor. Can there be a bigger compliment than that? But seriously, Taylor’s remarkable career leaves massive shoes to fill. The next WIU star at linebacker could be among a deep group of juniors and sophomores at the position. Stay tuned.
- Who’s the next Jaelon Acklin on offense?
As Taylor was impressive with his career-long consistency, Acklin raised eyebrows with his breakthrough season after three years shadowing Lance Lenoir and Joey Borsellino. The senior wide receiver, who earned second-team All-American honors from the Associated Press, made big catches galore and had a tight relationship on the field with his longtime roommate, quarterback Sean McGuire. Acklin’s game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter at Northern Iowa was a microcosm of the Leathernecks’ season. It was a team that, like Acklin, never gave up. Early in the season, Acklin said it wouldn’t be long before media members began requesting interviews with sophomore Brandon Gaston, the youngest of WIU’s starting wide receivers. The confidence Acklin showed in his young teammate should lead to further growth from Gaston.
- How deep is the offensive backfield heading into 2018?
WIU’s leading rusher Max Norris returns next season, along with his idol Marshawn Lynch’s physical running style. The slippery, speedy Steve McShane is also back, along with his impressive punt return skills. Norris and McShane combined for 1,300 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. A newcomer this season, redshirt freshman Clint Ratkovich, averaged 4.3 yards per rush and caught 17 passes and two touchdowns. None of Ratkovich’s catches were as memorable as his diving touchdown in the corner of the end zone at Illinois State to help the Leathernecks rally past the Redbirds. The trio should be a welcome security blanket for McGuire.
- How quickly will WIU’s new-look offensive line come together?
Right guard Drew Wagner returns next fall for his senior season, but he will be the lone returnee on a veteran offensive line from 2017. WIU’s five starters were credited with starting every game this fall. Next fall, however, will be a different story. Two juniors, a sophomore and two redshirt freshmen made up the second-team WIU offensive front. Multiple players will need to step forward to ensure McGuire’s jersey stays clean and the talent at running back shines. The Leathernecks allowed 22 sacks in 12 games last season, which should be the measuring stick for next season’s offensive line group.
- What’s the next step in QB Sean McGuire’s development?
Without Acklin and his 84 catches, look for McGuire to spread the ball around even more next season. As a junior, McGuire’s completion percentage rose (from 58 percent as a sophomore to 64 percent), his touchdown passes jumped (from 20 to 25) and his interceptions dropped (from 12 to seven). More targets should be expected for starting receiver Isaiah LeSure (15 catches in 2017), Gaston (23) and the tight end duo of Adam Conrady and Tyler Slamans (a combined 21 receptions).