Ready and able: Southern Illinois QBs have answered the call in spring season

Junior Stone Labanowitz (6) took over at quarterback against Northern Iowa and completed 11 of 15 passes in the SIU victory. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)

As a former college and professional quarterback, Nick Hill knows it can be a lonely job.

“It’s the toughest position on the team,” the Southern Illinois head football coach said. “Only one person gets to play. If you’re a backup linebacker, a backup D-lineman, you’re going to get some reps. You’re going to go into Saturdays knowing you’re going to get a few reps. Even if you’re not starting, you’re going to get in.”

In Southern’s case, however, injuries have made the QB position a revolving door and shined a spotlight on how backups need to be prepared at a moment’s notice.

The fifth-ranked Salukis (4-1 overall, 3-1 Missouri Valley Football Conference) will need to be ready for another test Saturday when they host No. 6 South Dakota State (3-1) at noon in Carbondale. (ESPN+)

Kare’ Lyles started SIU’s spring opener before being injured. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)

After senior Kare’ Lyles suffered broken ribs in the spring season opener against North Dakota, sophomore Nic Baker took over and led the team to three consecutive wins.

When Baker injured his left foot on a scramble out of the pocket in the first half against Northern Iowa last Saturday, junior Stone Labanowitz took over and connected on 11 of 15 passes in the victory.

“It starts with their approach,” Hill said of the QBs. “It’s up to them as individuals to buy into that.”

Despite not getting as many reps in practice as the starter, SIU’s backups have proven ready to go. Hill said consistency in the coaching staff is one of the reasons that the quarterbacks have performed well.

“It’s been nice that we’ve all been together now for two years – same quarterback coach, same coordinator, myself – knowing these guys,” he said. “It’s paid off and we’re going to continue to need them all.”

Nic Baker started three games this season and helped SIU to a 3-0 record in those games. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)

During his weekly press conference, Hill was unsure who would start. Baker is listed as the starter on the team’s weekly two-deep roster, but “he was in a lot of pain” after Saturday’s game, according to Hill.

Lyles was in uniform against Northern Iowa and could have played if needed.

“He was cleared on Thursday, but he just hadn’t practiced much,” Hill said. “He could’ve, in a worst-case scenario, got out there and played.”

Then there’s Labanowitz, who was the opening-day starter for SIU in 2019 before an injury derailed his season and Lyles took over. Labanowitz is one year removed from back surgery.

Big honor for Big Z

Senior guard ZeVeyon Furcron was named the MVFC Offensive Lineman of the Week for his performance against Northern Iowa.

The Joliet Catholic High School graduate graded out at 92% for the game and had five knockdowns against the Panthers. Furcron helped SIU rush for 192 yards in the contest and pile up 414 yards of total offense.

This is the first career MVFC O-line weekly honor for Furcron.

The Salukis face a test on the ground this week. SIU is averaging 182.8 yards on the ground, which ranks third in the conference. SDSU has the league’s fourth-best run defense, allowing 122 yards a game.

About South Dakota State

Junior running back Pierre Strong has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. This spring, he is second in the MVFC with 89.5 yards a game and has a 5.2 yards per carry average. “Strong is a top back in the country,” Hill said. “He’s a big back, makes guys miss. He’s really patient.” … SDSU’s quarterback job has been taken over by true freshman Mark Gronowski of Naperville. He ranks second in total offense (248.2 yards a game) in the conference. … The Jackrabbits have the longest active streak in FCS with 10 consecutive trips to the playoffs. … Dating back to October 2012, SDSU has been ranked in the top 25 in national media polls for 110 consecutive weeks. … The Jackrabbits have scored on their first offensive drive of the game in all four of its contests this spring.

News and notes

Hill said this week that defensive tackle Jujuan Blankenship will miss the remainder of the season because of injury. The transfer from FBS Tulsa played in three games this season, collecting eight tackles and two tackles for loss. … The Salukis will get some reinforcements in the secondary, according to Hill, as junior safety Aaron Maddox returns from injury. Maddox will join a stingy defensive backfield. The Salukis’ secondary has allowed an MVFC-low 135.6 passing yards per game this spring. … Linebackers Bryson Strong (30) and Bryce Notree (27) lead the team in tackles.

Where to find the game

SIU will kick off at noon against South Dakota State on ESPN+ online. The radio broadcast is available at CILFM.com.

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