With both recruiting signing days in the rearview mirror, the four Illinois FCS programs are now focused on the upcoming spring practices.
"I think that you can find a lot of really good players at our level that really probably should be FBS players that are left now because so many people feel like they have to get filled up in the early signing period. We were able to sign a lot of really good players that probably could play FBS football, but we were able to sign them here in the last month," Southern Illinois head coach Nick Hill said on siusalukis.com last week.
With winter conditioning underway, each program begins its spring practices in late February/early March and culminates with an annual game or scrimmage in April.
For SIU and Western Illinois, developing a quality quarterback is paramount following the graduation of established starters.
"That's the one position where you've got to have spring ball," Hill said. "Those 15 practices, all those meetings, getting here and learning the system, not only that, but learning your teammates. That guy has to be a leader for you, so you can't just show up on campus and (instantly) earn the respect of your teammates."
For the Salukis that means an open competition between transfers Karé Lyles (Wisconsin/Scottsdale CC) and Cooper Callis (Pearl River CC), along with a returning group of young recruits from recent years.
"The bottom line is we have to find a championship quarterback. I feel like there's guys in our room who can do that. You win at that position and you have to play winning football," Hill said. "I'm not saying you have to be an All-American or have the best stats, but you have to win games.
"We wouldn't have signed Karé if we didn't think he had the ability. No one gets told they're going to come in here and play. We want guys who know they're going to have to come in here and earn it and compete. I already see that competitive spirit in Karé.
"(Callis) came to (SIU's) camp when he was in high school and had an outstanding high school career. We want guys who want to be here, and Cooper wanted to be here. He's done it the hard way, going down to be a junior college quarterback in Mississippi. He took a beating a little bit this year, is a tough kid, so we're excited about Cooper coming here and competing. He knows nothing is given, you have to earn everything. What I appreciate most about Cooper is, yeah, we have five quarterbacks but that doesn't scare him off. He's here to compete."
For the first time in three years, Western will be without Sean McGuire under center. McGuire left Macomb as the heart and soul of the program in recent years.
Redshirt junior Connor Sampson appears to be McGuire's likely replacement heading into spring ball. Sampson, a Belleville, Mich. native, has thrown just 14 passes in his collegiate career.
Illinois State and Eastern appear to be set. The Redbirds return Brady Davis, while the Panthers bring back Jonathan Brantley and Harry Woodbery (who shared time last season) along with Scotty Gilkey, Jr. (who missed 2018 with an injury after starting as a redshirt freshman).
Tentative spring games
Kill named AD
Former coach Jerry Kill has been named SIU athletic director, according to multiple media outlets.
Kill, who coached in Carbondale from 2001-2007, joined Southern's staff in February 2018 as special assistant to the university chancellor. He became acting athletic director in April 2018 before the school's board of trustees approved his permanent appointment at a meeting last week, according to ESPN's Adam Rittenberg.
"I spent some great years here in the coaching profession, and if it wasn't for Southern Illinois University taking a chance on me, I wouldn't have had the same opportunities in my career," Kill said in a statement. "I didn't know for sure what I wanted to do when I returned to SIU a year ago, but I've talked it over with my wife, Rebecca, and I think I can help this university move forward and try to get us back where we need to be."
Kill was the first SIU coach to produce four consecutive winning seasons and is often credited with turning around the fortunes of Saluki football during his coaching reign.
The 57-year-old Kill will earn $215,000 annually as SIU athletic director.
Judd resigns with AAF
Former Western Illinois center Jacob Judd was resigned by the Arizona Hotshots of the Alliance of American Football (AAF) last week. Judd was among the team's final cuts coming out of training camp.
Judd, listed at 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds on the Arizona roster, previously spent time in Minnesota Vikings' rookie mini camp. The Clinton, Iowa native was named a CoSIDA Academic All-American following both his junior and senior seasons, just the second Western Illinois player to do so in consecutive years. Judd concluded his career at WIU as a three-time All-Missouri Valley Football Conference selection.