Call it the changing of the guard. Or in this case, the changing of the Leatherneck.
When Western Illinois opens its season Aug. 29 at North Alabama, gone from the roster are names like Fitzpatrick, McGuire, McShane, Moon, Saunders and Swenson. Consequently, the WIU torch is being passed, and with it, so are the Leathernecks' chances for success.
"We’ve got a lot of newer guys on the team, a lot of transfers, a lot of younger guys stepping up," junior Clint Ratkovich told Prairie State Pigskin last week.
Linebacker Zach Glisan returns, a year after finishing second to the graduated Pete Swenson in tackles for Western.
"My role is definitely stepping up this year with being a leader since I’m one of the more experienced guys on the defense," Glisan said. "We’ve got a lot of young guys that are moving into important roles now with the loss of those seniors."
Then, there's redshirt junior Connor Sampson, who is in a battle with transfers Kevin Johnson (Richmond), Grant Ferrauilo (El Camino Community) and Henry Ogala (Division II Lincoln) as the heir to Sean McGuire's record-setting reign as WIU quarterback.
"The competition is open. You’ve got to go out there everyday and be ready to perform," said Sampson, who backed up McGuire last season. "Playing behind Sean you’re going to learn a lot, he's a very elite quarterback."
Sampson, a former three-sport athlete from Belleville, Mich., appeared in 10 games the past two seasons. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Sampson has completed 11-of-22 passes for 132 yards in his college career. Sampson has one touchdown pass and one interception.
"Sitting behind Sean for three years, I learned how to watch film, how to go on game day, what to do on a day-to-day basis," Sampson said. "We’re great friends. I learned so much from him. He was probably my biggest mentor in college."
While conventional wisdom sees the loss of starters from last year's veteran-laden team (particularly on defense), all three players realize that as they move into more high-profile roles, younger and more inexperienced players may be thrust into spots when injuries begin to take their toll.
"Now, being an upperclassman I’ve got to step into that role and be a leader and bring along the other guys with me. Keep moving forward," said Ratkovich, who was named to the preseason first team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference at fullback.
"(People) sometimes look at me weird and ask, ‘are you a straight fullback?’ I move around a lot, so it’s hard to pick which position I actually play, but fullback is one of ‘em so I try to push and keep going," said the 6-foot-1, 220-pounder.
Though the coaching staff has yet to name its team captains, Ratkovich seems a likely choice. The Crete-Monee High School graduate served as one last season despite only being a sophomore. Ratakovich led WIU with 54 receptions and ranked 10th in the Missouri Valley in receiving yards per game (11.4) last fall.
Glisan, a senior from Abingdon, Ill., ranked 10th in the conference in total tackles (83) a season ago. Listed at 6-foot-2 and 232 pounds, Glisan established a career-high in solo (11) and total (15) tackles in a victory over 15th-ranked Montana.
"I have to lead by example, lead by action and have everyone come together and work for that common goal," Glisan said of his role this fall.
Joining Glisan as seniors likely to start are defensive back Eric Carrera, wide receiver John Brunner, punter/kicker Nathan Erickson, running back Max Norris and defensive lineman LaCale London.
"We have great senior leadership," WIU head coach Jared Elliott said as fall camp opened. "They are guys who have been in our program, and it's fun to see that the torch has been passed to them. The seniors are seeing that they have younger guys looking up to them and that motivates them to take on a leadership role."