No matter what position group you examine on the Southern Illinois football roster, a wildly impactful veteran has been part of the Salukis’ impressive run amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Winning 14 of their 23 games during the calendar year 2021 required immense focus and tons of veteran leadership.
Among those leaders were defensive end Anthony Knighton (57 career starts), offensive guard ZeVeyon Furcron (54), wide receiver Landon Lenoir (42), safety Qua Brown (37) and linebacker Bryce Notree (35), along with veteran linebacker Bryson Strong and cornerback James Ceasar, who were injured for most of the fall.
That group and the steady guidance of head coach Nick Hill and his staff helped set the standard for this new era of SIU football, which has included back-to-back seasons in the FCS playoffs, memorable wins galore and numerous weeks in the FCS national rankings.
“Like Coach Hill says, it’s been a 10-year battle to try and get this back on track,” Notree said after the team’s second-round playoff loss at North Dakota State this fall. “When I look around the locker room, there’s a lot of good players around there. It was a lot of good memories, a lot of good times, we won a lot of big games. I feel like we’ve changed this program, and we’re going to leave a legacy on this program. That’s a big thing.”
How do the Salukis remain relevant as a changing of the guard occurs on the roster?
That’s one of five burning questions facing the Salukis this off-season.
- How can SIU maintain its stature as a Top 10 team?
The Salukis, who spent several weeks in the Top 10 in national rankings this fall, have made a habit of bouncing back from critical situations. The abundance of experience on its roster certainly helped in these matters.
In some instances, however, more consistent execution would be a prime way to stay out of various high-wire scenarios in 2022.
Cases in point during the fall: Falling behind 17-0 to a young Illinois State team in Carbondale; Needing overtime to put away a two-win Western Illinois team; Surviving a 1-3 finish to end the regular season and clinging to playoff hopes after a Senior Day loss to three-win Youngstown State.
Nine-time national champion North Dakota State will be around for a while, despite multiple other top FCS programs leaving for the FBS. Depending on who you listen to, NDSU’s reasons for staying include not wanting to move all athletic teams to a league that requires greater travel, not wanting to give up its big fish status in the FCS or simply not being offered an invitation by an FBS league as of yet.
Regardless of NDSU’s future, Southern has to match the depth and physicality the Bison have been known for over the past decade.
“As the head coach of the program, we’ve been able to elevate ourselves to the top 10,” Hill said after the season. “Getting to seven and eight wins can’t be OK. What do we have to do to get 10, 11, 12, 13? It’s recruiting. It’s players over plays. Continue to develop a roster not to just win seven games and get to the playoffs.”
Quarterback Nic Baker said after the team’s season-ending playoff loss in Fargo that the future is in the Salukis’ hands.
“We can do whatever we put our minds to,” he said. “We can take this program to wherever we want it to go. We’ve shown that in pieces. It’s hard. It’s not going to be easy.”
2. Who will be the next generation of leaders?
On offense, the answers are obvious. Baker has started 12 consecutive games and is a steady leadership force for the Salukis. His high school teammate and top wide receiver target – Avante Cox – is one of the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s most dangerous playmakers.
Running back Javon Williams Jr. is a matchup nightmare from nearby Centralia and a sparkplug when the offense sputters.
Defensively, the secondary has several impactful players waiting to step into leadership roles in safety Clayton Bush and cornerbacks P.J. Jules and David Miller. That trio combined to start 37 games during the fall season.
3. What’s the next step for the SIU passing game?
Baker set a single-season school record with 3,231 yards this fall, but that total most certainly will go higher in 2022.
Cox missed time at midseason with a shoulder injury, limiting him to a career-low 43 catches.
The loss of do-everything wide receiver Landon Lenoir is a massive one. He played every role imaginable, was a model of consistency and an example for younger players. His 61 catches and 10 touchdowns led the team this season.
Also departing is sixth-year senior Jerron Rollins, who averaged more than 13 yards a catch.
As a freshman, speedy Izaiah Hartrup showed he had big-play ability in the pass game and as a returner. His one-handed catch over the middle of the field against Illinois State was a game changer and one of SIU’s most dynamic plays of the season.
Expect more from Zach Gibson, who showed that he belonged in the reps he got this fall.
4. Are there gems coming to Carbondale via the transfer portal?
The Salukis found a huge target for the pass game in 6-foot-6 Abilene Christian tight end Remington Lutz, but SIU did its most impressive work on the defensive side of the ball.
Hill and his staff fortified the secondary with safety Antonio Fletcher (Arkansas State) and two other defensive backs in its December recruiting class – La’Andre Thomas of Memphis and Mark Davis of Buffalo. At linebacker, the team added Pittsburgh transfer Leslie Smith and Georgia Southern veteran Chris Harris Jr., who played 46 games in four seasons.
5. What’s the first measuring stick for 2022?
The first three weeks of the season will provide some idea of where the Salukis are headed.
Despite losing its coach and record-setting quarterback, the University of Incarnate Word awaits SIU in the season opener Sept. 3 in San Antonio. Up next is the home opener Sept. 10 against regional rival Southeast Missouri before a trip to Evanston one week later to face a Northwestern team that has lost 10 players via the transfer portal, according to Rivals.com, including All-American safety Brandon Joseph.
Don’t think a win against NU is possible? Think again. The Wildcats are coming off of a 3-9 season in which they beat one Power 5 conference team (Rutgers). In addition, Ryan Field is often very quiet during the non-conference schedule when students haven’t returned to Evanston yet. A few thousand SIU fans would certainly liven the place up.
According to FBSchedules.com, SIU does not play South Dakota State or Indiana State in MVFC play. In the first four conference games of 2022, SIU plays only one playoff team from last season.