For the Southern Illinois football program, 2019 was a breakthrough.
The Salukis’ 7-5 overall record and 5-3 Missouri Valley Football Conference marks were the first winning records since 2013. It was also the first winning season in head coach Nick Hill’s four-year tenure.
SIU put together an impressive five-game winning streak down the stretch, beat an FBS team when they knocked off Massachusetts (1-11) in September and became playoff eligible for the first time since 2009.
But a sour finish ended the year when the Salukis weren’t selected for the FCS playoffs, something a frustrated Hill said was in part because of a lack of “football people” on the playoff committee.
“Call the teams in our league and see what they say about Southern Illinois,” Hill said after the snub.
What people say about SIU in 2020 will depend a great deal on how the Salukis build on their breakthrough year.
Will they be a one-year wonder or was 2019 the start of something good in Carbondale?
Here are Prairie State Pigskin’s five burning questions for the Salukis in 2020:
- Who fills the big shoes of D.J. Davis on offense?
Sure, the Salukis used three running backs to build a powerful run game. But Davis made his mark an indelible mark on SIU in his four seasons. His 5,431 all-purpose yards rank second-most in school history and 2,697 rushing yards are fifth-best all time. Just as big of a contribution was his leadership and the respect he built among teammates. So, who has the tall talk of taking over for the 5-8 Davis’ role? Most likely that will belong to a fellow diminutive back, 5-5 Romeir Elliott, who showed off his quickness while rushing for nearly 500 yards and three touchdowns as a true freshman.
- How good can Javon Williams Jr. be?
Williams told Prairie State Pigskin in the fall that he never wanted to play running back. As a high school recruit, he told schools he was a quarterback only. That changed when he got to SIU and started running the football with the scout team. The 6-1, 239-pound redshirt freshman earned second-team All-America honors and placed third in voting for the Jerry Rice Award, which is given to the nation’s best freshman in FCS. His 1,038 yards and 19 touchdowns were a massive boost to the Saluki offense. The Centralia native, who is equally adept throwing the ball and running out of a Wildcat formation, has all the tools to be one of the MVFC’s best players for years to come and a name that will be remembered for a long time in Carbondale. If Williams can build on last season, his name will belong in the conversation for the FCS Walter Payton Award.
- Can the SIU defense continue its improvement?
First-year defensive coordinator Jason Petrino made a big impact on the Salukis, who gave up 18 fewer points and 130 fewer yards a game in 2019. The biggest gain, however, could be in the run game, where SIU allowed nearly 70 fewer yards on the ground in the fall. In addition, SIU’s pass rush piled up 13 more sacks than in 2018. The Salukis do have some ground to make up in a couple of key areas. They allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 60 percent of their passes this season, and they finished only plus-one in turnover margin. SIU’s nine interceptions ranked sixth in the 10-team MVFC and was the first time since 2015 that they didn’t have a double-digit interception total.
- Can the Salukis pump up their passing game?
Three seasons ago, SIU owned the most dangerous passing game in the MVFC at 330 yards a game. In 2019, they showed off a power running game that led them to seven wins. Finding a bit more balance on offense could make the Salukis an even more attractive playoff contender in 2020. This season’s 185.2 yards per game ranked eighth in the conference and was SIU’s lowest average since 2012. Junior quarterback Kare Lyles passed for 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions after taking over for the injured Stone Labanowitz. Lyles did, however, complete 63 percent of his passes, and had the fourth-best quarterback efficiency rating in the conference (139.8).
- Who takes over for All-American safety Jeremy Chinn?
A senior from the Indianapolis area, Chinn made a big impact on the SIU defense, being named to three All-America teams and being invited to the Senior Bowl, the most prestigious of postseason all-star games. The answer to who fills his shoes might be one of the easiest ones for the Salukis this offseason. Among the team’s 18-member December recruiting class was junior Aaron Maddox, a transfer from Colorado. Maddox started three games for the Buffaloes last season and played in all 12 contests. His brother, Christian Maddox, will be a senior cornerback for SIU this fall.