An improved rushing game would vastly help both sides of the ball for Western Illinois.
“In this conference (the Missouri Valley), and really in any conference that travels around the country, you’ve got to marry a great run game and a defense,” WIU head coach Jared Elliott said earlier this week during fall camp as the Leathernecks prepare for a Sept. 2 opener at Ball State.
It’s been no secret that Western has struggled to move the ball on the ground in recent years. During the spring season, the Leathernecks averaged just 2.5 yards a carry and only 56.3 yard per game.
Moreover, Western has not had a back rush for 1,000 yards since Nikko Watson in 2015. Clint Ratkovich led WIU in rushing with just 258 yards and one touchdown in 2019 — the lowest full-season total since the Leathernecks went Division I in football.
“When your time of possession was the way it was for us in the spring (with opponents having the ball roughly 13 minutes longer a game) and you’re putting your defense out on the field as much as we did and you’re not efficient on the early downs and you’re not able to take the chunk plays of three or four yards and stay on schedule and get yourself some third-and-manageables, it makes it very difficult,” Elliott said. “That’s where we are focusing (on running the ball). That’s been a heavy emphasis the first five days (of camp) and (will we) maintain it.”
Elliott and his staff realize that the fix won’t happen without a plan.
“We’ve got commit to it. It’s a mentality for us on the offensive side of the ball,” Elliott said. “It’s got to become a mindset for us, not only with our players but with our coaching staff . . . we’ve got to run the ball and we’ve got to stop the run (on defense).”
Following a shortened spring season in which the Leathernecks posted a 1-5 record, the WIU staff hit the recruiting trail.
Western brought in signees to bolster its offensive line.
“Walking away from the spring, that was our biggest area of emphasis in terms of recruiting. We needed to build depth,” Elliott said. “We went out and signed eight guys from spring to June, and that’s not easy to do. And our guys (coaches) did it.
“We got high school guys, we got prep school guys, we got junior college guys, we got (transfer) portal guys. I don’t care where they come from as long as they fit who we are.”
Like any camp, the coaching staff wants to see competition among its roster and its position groups.
“It’s up to us to identify who those best five (offensive linemen) are in camp,” Elliott said.
Senior quarterback Connor Sampson said, “I think one thing you’ll see focused in the fall is being a run-first offense.”
And that’s coming from a quarterback who has thrown for nearly 4,000 yards in his career. Sampson, picked as the all-conference second team quarterback in the spring, knows a balanced attack enhances his team’s chances of winning.
“That will take our offense to a whole new level once we get that run game going. You’re going to start seeing safeties bite on the run and that’s going to allow a lot of opportunities downfield,” Sampson said.
Backfield in motion
Western’s run game took a huge hit in the first game of the spring when sophomore DeShon Gavin suffered a season-ending injury. The Joliet native and Providence Catholic graduate had been expected to be a dual threat running the ball and catching it out of the backfield.
Freshman Ludovick Choquette took over that role, leading WIU in rushing and catching 13 passes in five games. Choquette, a Quebec native, twice produced 90 or more yards of total offense in the abbreviated spring.
Another freshman, Iosefa Pua’auli, was the Leathernecks’ second leading rusher. The Honolulu native is listed at slotback on this fall’s roster.
Three of the next four top spring rushers were receivers.
“They compliment each other,” receiver Tony Tate said of the running and passing games. “You can’t really have a great passing game without a consistent running game.”
Generating some excitement early in camp is freshman Jaylen Reed, listed at 5-foot-8 and 165 pounds. Reed was a four-year starter at East St. Louis and helped his high school to a 6A state championship his junior year.
Whoever emerges as WIU’s main ball carrier, the Leathernecks want to avoid three-and-out situations that wear down their defense.
“We got behind the sticks early. We had a lot of mental miscues, but now I believe we’ve got that all situated,” said senior safety Michael Lawson.