Lines, depth hold keys to WIU moving up in Missouri Valley standings

While Western Illinois has skill players to move the ball through the air, its success hinges on improved line play and running game. (photo courtesy goleathernecks.com)

Like most teams, the recognizable names for Western Illinois football reside in the so-called skill positions. Yet Jared Elliott knows full well where the opportunity to move up in the Missouri Valley Football Conference standings lies.

“We entered the spring season very much concerned about our two fronts, our offensive and defensive lines and where we were, and now I think we’ve not only corrected that through recruiting but just the recovery time and guys getting healthy over these couple months,” the fourth-year WIU head coach said at Tuesday’s MVFC media day.

Elliott pointed out that both lines have added depth and grown stronger physically.

“We had three freshmen that were playing a lot for us in our offensive line and a couple on defense, and physically those guys were not ready to play in a Missouri Valley game. That’s the biggest thing. This is a big man conference, we know that. It’s going to start up front,” Elliott said.

“We need to run the football better. We’ve got to stop the run better. That’s where this game starts every snap,” he said. “You need tough guys. Strong guys. You create that in the weight room, and so we’ve seen a lot of gains.”

Regrouping from shortened spring

WIU was one of several FCS teams that had to halt its spring season because of a depleted roster decimated by injuries. After beating Youngstown State for their lone win of the spring, the Leathernecks cancelled their final two April games.

Picked to finish last in the 11-team Missouri Valley preseason poll, Western opens camp next week in Macomb in preparation for its 11-game schedule.

“The summer was critical in more ways than just player development, (also for) camaraderie with our football team, the relationship aspect,” Elliott said. “Camp is going to be critical for everybody; it’s going to be extremely critical for us.

“Not only have we gotten guys back from a health standpoint, but we’ve added some very much needed depth.”

Star power

Five Leathernecks were named to the preseason All-Missouri Valley Football Conference team. Four of those players are on offense.

Senior wide receiver Dennis Houston landed on the league’s first team. Houston was the team leader in receptions (43) and receiving yards (477) in the spring. His 7.2 receptions per game and 79.5 receiving yards per game were both conference-bests.

Dennis Houston

In those two statistical categories, Houston stood nationally in the top 25 among all Division I receivers. The 2021 first team All-MVFC pick ranked ninth in the Valley in all-purpose yards (84.8) and caught at least five passes in all six games.

Fellow senior receiver Tony Tate was a preseason second team selection. The DeKalb native led the Missouri Valley in all-purpose yards per game (129), ranked seventh in receiving yards per game (64.8), fourth in total touchdowns (5), and third in yards per kick return (24.5).

The remaining three WIU all-league picks were on the honorable mention list: senior quarterback Connor Sampson, offensive lineman Will Waddell and punter Adam Fellner.

Let’s get physical

Elliott added that WIU’s camp will feature plenty of contact coupled with common sense.

“We need to go have a good physical summer camp, that’s what we need, that’s what our football team needs, but there’s going to be some balance to that,” Elliott said. “We need to make sure we get to the starting line healthy.”

That starting line begins with a non-conference opener Sept. 2 at FBS member Ball State of the Mid-American Conference. WIU then faces solid tests against traditional FCS powers Montana on the road and Eastern Washington in Macomb.

The Leathernecks begin the MVFC schedule Sept. 25 at Youngstown State, the team picked ninth in the conference preseason poll.

MVFC Preseason Poll

Team (First-Place) … Points

1. South Dakota State (24) … 454

2. North Dakota State (18) … 435

3. North Dakota … 357

4. Southern Illinois … 345

5. UNI (1) … 311

6. Missouri State … 256

7. Illinois State … 196

8. South Dakota … 163

9. Youngstown State … 126

10. Indiana State … 112

11. Western Illinois … 83

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