As a record-setting quarterback at Southern Illinois, Nick Hill knew how to improvise on the fly. Today, as the head coach at his alma mater, he's putting that experience to good use.
"“We knew there was probably going to be something to adapt to before the season started," Hill said at last week's media conference.
As members of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, the Salukis have already had to adapt. Two weeks ago, league member Indiana State opted out of the spring season. As a result, the MVFC had to reshuffle its conference-only spring schedule.
"I’m excited to be part of the Missouri Valley Conference from our leadership and the steadfast commitment to playing this season. That’s what we told our players the entire time, that we were going to pursue meaningful games and have an opportunity to end in a championship," Hill said.
SIU posted a turnaround seven-win season that resulted in a Top-25 ranking in 2019. The Salukis played one game this past fall, edging out longtime rival Southeast Missouri State 20-17 on a last-second field goal in late October. That victory, coupled with the return of many key members from '19's team that narrowly missed making the FCS playoffs, has Hill and Saluki fans excited.
“We’re going to be ready to play. We’re excited to play, and we’re going to be there. We understand the importance of the safety and what’s going on. We’ve learned a lot going through the fall and through the spring and seeing other sports and how they’ve adapted to things," Hill said.
SIU opens the season Feb. 20 at North Dakota, a school starting its first season in the MVFC after leaving the Big Sky Conference in 2018. The Fighting Hawks are coached by Bubba Schweigert, the defensive coordinator at SIU for six seasons (2008-13) .
Add in the fact that North Dakota was the last team selected by the NCAA playoff committee in '19 — edging out SIU — and you've got plenty of drama.
"North Dakota is new to the league. I’m glad they’ve got a dome. Our first game will be sunny and 70 up there," Hill said.
The Salukis open their home season the following Saturday by hosting defending FCS national champion North Dakota State. Seating capacity for the SIU four spring games will be limited to approximately 16 percent, based upon a plan approved by the campus Emergency Operations Center and with guidance from the state of Illinois and Jackson County Health Department.
"It’s going to be a grind of a schedule. If you look too far in front of you, you’re going to get beat. It’s similar to what the SEC just went through. Every time you look up, (there's) another blue blood program that has a great team and you’ve got to be prepared to play that game in front of you," Hill said.
For now, the fifth-year SIU head coach is focused on his team getting better in all aspects of the game.
"I’ve told our guys the No. 1 thing for you to be a great football player is the mental part of it. You can be as fast as you can be, you can lift a lot of weights, you can be strong, have great ball skills, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t play. I want 11 guys that know what they’re doing first."
SIU 2021 Spring Football Schedule
Saturday, Feb. 20: at North Dakota (12 PM)
Saturday, Feb. 27: North Dakota State (12 PM)
Saturday, March 6: at Youngstown State (11 AM CT)
Saturday, March 13: Northern Iowa (12 PM)
Saturday, March 20: South Dakota State (12 PM)
Saturday, March 27: at Missouri State (2 PM)
Saturday, April 3: at Illinois State (12 PM)
Saturday, April 10: Western Illinois (12 PM)
Saturday, April 17: Open (Saved as Rescheduling Window)
April 24-May 15: FCS Playoffs