5 burning questions for fall 2021: Southern Illinois Salukis

Offensive lineman Ze’Veyon Furcron and running back Romeir Elliott were two Salukis who had plenty to celebrate this spring as SIU made the FCS quarterfinals. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)

Southern Illinois head football coach Nick Hill recalled his own playing days in Carbondale this season when fans loudly chanted “S-I-U, S-I-U” during a playoff victory at Weber State in Utah.

More than a decade after his playing days ended, Hill and the Salukis have brought the team’s fan base back to life thanks to its dramatic playoff run during the COVID spring season.

SIU was equal parts resilient and fearless, bouncing back from a season-opening loss to North Dakota with an eye-popping upset of FCS heavyweight North Dakota State, surviving a close call against Northern Iowa and rebounding from an emotional loss at Missouri State to end up in the national quarterfinals.

Don’t expect this SIU team to give up what it gained this season, which included boat loads of confidence in itself.

SIU has two capable returning quarterbacks, a dominant run game and dynamic wide receivers on offense to go with a veteran line to compete in the rugged Missouri Valley Football Conference.

Defensively, an immensely talented secondary leads the way, along with ultra-productive linebackers and solid talent along the line.

SIU opened plenty of eyes nationally and in its own back yard, and they should reap the benefits when stadiums ease COVID restrictions this fall.

Veteran linebacker Bryce Notree tweeted last month that he would love to see Saluki Stadium full when the team debuts at home Sept. 18 against Dayton.

This fall, sellouts should be an expectation and not a wish in Carbondale as they have been in seasons past.

Here are five burning questions as the fall approaches for the Salukis:

  1. Can SIU tighten up its run defense?

In a season of amazing highlights, comebacks and good vibes, SIU’s biggest sore spot was its run defense. The 392-yard output by South Dakota State in March was tough to swallow, for sure. But the Salukis also gave up more than 200 yards in five other games.

One of the biggest hurdles this season was the loss of two defensive tackles – including Tulsa transfer Jajuan Blankenship – to season-ending injuries. This led to a shuffling up front that included moving standout defensive end Jordan Berner inside for the last four games of the season. He performed admirably there despite being out of position. If the Salukis can get healthy up front and add reinforcements on the line, they could turn those gaudy stats around quickly.

2. Who starts at quarterback this fall?

Roommates Stone Labanowitz and Nic Baker are sure to face off for the job during fall camp. Both have plenty of triumphs on their resumes and know the SIU system well, along with having a comfort level with the coaching staff.

Baker, the Rochester, Ill., native, was the player SIU turned to when starter Kare’ Lyles was hurt in the spring opener against North Dakota. Baker completed 68% of his passes before going down with a season-ending foot injury March 13 against Northern Iowa. Enter Labanowitz, the gutsy playmaker who made some dramatic plays while throwing for more than 1,200 yards and a 72% completion rate. This off-season, the Salukis also added Cincinnati transfer Michael Lindauer, who passed for nearly 11,000 yards as a prep player in Indiana.

Lyles entered the transfer portal this spring after graduating from SIU.

3. Does SIU belong with the MVFC’s heavyweights?

For every stumble last season, SIU seemed to have an incredibly resilient response. They never backed down from a challenge. This fall, the challenge is to remain among the conference’s elite.

Ending North Dakota State’s 39-game winning streak Feb. 27 in Carbondale was a masterpiece. And, it is undoubtedly the signature win of Hill’s tenure as head coach. But the Salukis must continue to – as Labanowitz said after beating Northern Iowa – hang big fish on the wall.

To continue building their resume, SIU needs to dominate the non-conference rivalry with Southeast Missouri, push around the teams below them in the league and make a positive showing in their FCS game at Kansas State on Sept. 11.

For some SIU fans, flexing their offensive muscle against Illinois State and Western Illinois, who both opted out of the season and left the Salukis in a scheduling bind while they were chasing a player berth, is a must.

However, focusing on wins against the Dakota schools and UNI is how to build a playoff resume again this fall and beyond.

4. Will the Salukis rest on their accomplishments?

Not. A. Chance.

SIU fans only need to look as far as Twitter to see how many transfers are headed to Carbondale. Along with Lindauer, the offensive additions include running back Donnavan Spencer (Western Carolina), tight end Tyce Daniel (Memphis) and lineman Sam Neuman (Trinity Valley Community College).

On defense, cornerback David Miller (Navy), linebacker Kholbe Coleman-Abrams (Bowling Green), and tackles Kam Bowdry (Tennessee-Martin) and DeShondrick Foxworth (Buffalo) committed to SIU via the transfer portal, where the Salukis have been relentlessly active since the season ended.

5. Can the quick turnaround from the spring be a detriment?

The Salukis wouldn’t trade their playoff run for anything. But their bodies will have to bounce back quicker than other teams on their schedule, including ISU and WIU. Those two MVFC programs drew the ire of Saluki fans and head coach Nick Hill for opting out of the season just before both were scheduled to play SIU. Losing the two games took away a pair of likely wins for Southern and forced them to scramble to find a game against Southeastern Louisiana, which turned into a playoff play-in game. (Remarkably, some SIU observers were still shooting social media arrows at ISU, WIU and the Missouri Valley during the team’s playoff run.)

The upcoming fall season involves a calendar turnaround that hasn’t been experienced before in college football. How SIU navigates it will go a long way to determining its success.

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