The Southern Illinois football team has forgotten about being left out of last season’s FCS playoff field.
Or, has it?
Before spring practice opened Wednesday in Carbondale, SIU head coach Nick Hill addressed how the team is approaching 2020 after its best overall (7-5) and Missouri Valley Football Conference (5-3) records since 2013.
The season earned praise from around the conference and a one-year contract extension for Hill.
“We’ve put the season behind us, but not forgotten about it, either,” Hill said during a press conference earlier this week in Carbondale. “We don’t need motivation.”
On the team’s Twitter account, a Jan. 16 post said, “Got left out? Nobody Cares – Work Harder!” That accompanied a 1-minute video of players taking part in offseason workouts wearing t-shirts that read, “Nobody Cares Work Harder.”
For some in the program, the playoff snub certainly still stings.
Hill shared a story about University of Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett, whose team lost an opening-round NCAA tournament game as a No. 1 seed in 2018 – a first in tournament history -- then rebounded to win the national championship the following season.
“They went from the worst loss in college basketball history, and had 365 days of thinking about it, and used it the right way and went and won a national championship,” he said. “Adversity, if used the right way, can buy you a ticket to somewhere you couldn’t have been before.”
Hill said fifth-year senior Kare’ Lyles, who started the final nine games after taking over for the injured Stone Labanowitz, will go into spring ball as the team’s starter at QB.
Lyles led the team to a 5-4 record while throwing for 1,569 yards, 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Accuracy was a highlight for Lyles, who completed 62.9 percent of his passes, which ranks seventh best for a single season in SIU history.
But Hill left the door open for some competition at the position.
“Kare’s our starter going into the spring,” he said. “But I don’t think anything in life is set in stone. Everybody has to come out and compete and re-earn their job every single day.”
Run game returning
The Salukis put together an impressive five-game winning streak last season thanks to an improved run game.
Though they lose four-year starting center Jacob Marnin and left tackle Ernest Dye Jr. to graduation, the SIU run game will still have plenty of punch, thanks to do-it-all back Javon Williams Jr.
He was a second-team All-American, finished third in voting for the Jerry Rice Award – given to the top freshman in FCS – while leading all of Division I football freshmen with 19 touchdowns. A high school quarterback, Williams ran for 1,038 yards, passed for two touchdowns and became the first player to have a rushing, receiving and passing touchdown in a single game.
Williams was a vibrant threat last season as a wildcat quarterback as well.
“You’ll see him back there behind center quite a bit,” Hill said.
Shining on defense
The play of SIU’s defense was a major highlight last season. The unit gave up 18 fewer points and 130 fewer yards a game than in 2018, thanks to the influence of new coordinator Jason Petrino.
The Salukis return plenty of experience at linebacker with sixth-year senior Cody Crider (90 tackles), junior Makel Calhoun (team-leading seven sacks) and junior Bryson Strong (61 tackles).
Fifth-year senior Bryce Notree, who missed most of last season with injury, also will be returning, along with junior Luke Geigling, who started seven games a year ago.
Also back is senior defensive end Anthony Knighton, who has piled up 21 sacks while starting 34 consecutive games.
Running back D.J. Davis and soon-to-be NFL safety Jeremy Chinn are two of the team’s biggest losses.
“Every year, you lose great leaders,” Hill said. “D.J. and Jeremy were two of the best leaders we’ve ever had here.”
The Salukis will have two practices in February, 10 in March and two in April before the team’s annual spring scrimmage, which is planned for April 4.