Prairie State Pigskin asked WIU beat writer Scott Holland of the McDonough County Voice to assess the Leathernecks as they prepare for the 2019 season.
What are two strengths WIU has entering this season?
Both lines are going to be big strengths for Western. On offense, the Leathernecks return four starters from last year and eight of their 10 from the two-deep. The Leathernecks struggled at times up front last year with a completely overhauled offensive line with four new starters, but with a year of experience, the group should be solid.
I also like the defensive front. The loss of Khalen Saunders will hurt a lot, but this is a deep, talented line. LaCale London, Kyle Williams, Shabar Wilson and Joe Turk give Western four players who saw a lot of time on the D-Line last season. I also expect Luke Terrill and Jake Detiveaux to work their way into the mix. Another guy to watch is Temple transfer Malik Burns.
What are two weaknesses or concerns WIU has entering this season?
The biggest concern, or question mark for the team is the quarterback spot. Sean McGuire started 38 straight games for the Leathernecks but has moved on to play pro ball in Canada.
Connor Sampson is the lone holdover from last season's quarterback group but only has a handful snaps under his belt. WIU did bring in a trio of transfers in Kevin Johnson (Richmond), Grant Ferrauilo (El Camino Community) and Henry Ogala (Lincoln DII) to add to the mix and push Sampson this fall.
Another concern may be depth. A lot has been made of the big-time players WIU lost, and while those guys will be tough to replace, Western should have a good group of starters who are ready to take over. The problem may be if the team sustains an injury or two to a position group, because if so, there will be a lot of untested, young players called upon ahead of schedule.
Name two breakout players that you believe will emerge this fall.
A guy I think will have a big season is Tony Tate. With the graduations of Steve McShane and Isaiah LeSure, Western is in need of a big-time playmaker. Before he was hurt last season, Tate showcased electric speed and the ability to make a man miss. Those attributes, along with his stature (5-8, 170) will get him a lot of comparisons to McShane. If Tate can be that explosive player in the passing, running and return game, he'll fulfill a big need for the Leathernecks.
On the defensive side, with Quentin Moon, Pete Swenson, Riggs Baxter and Michael Bishoff all gone, the Leathernecks are going to need multiple players to step into a void at linebacker.
Zach Glisan, the team's second-leading tackler from last year, is back, but he'll need some players next to him. The guy I'm looking to make an impact at linebacker is Tom Rehfeld. Rehfeld had an excellent spring and coach Jared Elliott has raved about him in the summer. Rehfeld played in 10 games last year and only had seven tackles, but he'll be counted upon to be a key force on defense this season.
What is the biggest game on the schedule fall? Why?
For me, the biggest game for Western is the October 12 contest at Indiana State. The Sycamores were the surprise team of the Missouri Valley Football Conference a year ago, nearly sneaking into the playoffs and the Sycamores are expected to be better this year. These two teams met in the final week of the season last year and ISU's win possibly keeping Western out of the postseason. The two teams could be in position to be in that middle third of the Valley pack and could have postseason expectations. The game is not only a big one for Western based on what team it is against, but also when it falls.
The first five games for the Leathernecks are nothing automatic when it comes to wins, but it is a much more favorable slate on paper than the back-half of the schedule.
The Indiana State game falls at the end of the first half, a victory there could have WIU on a high and on a roll heading into the tougher part of the schedule that features games at Northern Iowa, North Dakota State and Youngstown State as well as a home matchups with Illinois State, Southern Illinois and South Dakota.
Blog co-authors Barry Bottino and Dan Verdun bring years of experience covering collegiate athletics. Barry has covered college athletes for more than two decades in his "On Campus" column, which is published weekly by Shaw Media. Dan has written four books about the state's football programs--"NIU Huskies Football" (released in 2013), "EIU Panthers Football (2014), "ISU Redbirds" (2016) and “SIU Salukis Football" (2017).