With record-setting players gone, new Western Illinois staff focuses on rebuilding its offense

Western Illinois wrapped up its off-season practices with its annual Bruck Craddock Spring Game Friday night in Macomb. (photo courtesy of @WIUfootball Twitter)

MACOMB— Perhaps the old baseball barker calls of “Ya can’t tell the players without a scorecard!” best describes first-year coach Myers Hendrickson’s Western Illinois Leathernecks.

Graduation and the transfer portal has left the 33-year-old Hendrickson tasked with rebuilding a team that had just 58 players listed on the roster for Friday night’s annual Bruce Craddock Memorial Spring Game.

As a result, Hendrickson and his coaching staff ran the team through various positional drills and game scrimmage simulations on a warm, breezy night at Hanson Field.

Offensively, WIU lost 76 percent of its total yards from last season under former head coach Jared Elliott. Gone are record-setting quarterback Connor Sampson and his top three receivers.

With spring camp over, Hendrickson’s staff now focuses on rounding out the Leatherneck roster. Over the course of the next few weeks, the staff will continue to work on transfers, both from the FBS ranks as well as from lower levels of college football.

“It’s huge because we are always recruiting,” Hendrickson said. “In college football right now, you’re always recruiting. I’m really happy about the signing class we had in December, that high school class. And now we’re working on transfers. That’s going to be a huge piece moving forward . . . There’s still a lot of good junior college players out there too.”

WIU landed a transfer the day after its spring scrimmage when receiver Jafar Armstrong announced Saturday on Twitter that he was committing to the Leathernecks. Armstrong, a Lee’s Summit, Mo. native, graduated with a degree in business from Notre Dame in 2021 and then transferred to the University of Illinois.

Armstrong, listed at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds by Illinois last fall, appeared in 31 games during his time at Notre Dame.

Armstrong’s best season came in 2019 when he rushed for 122 yards and one touchdown, while also catching 13 passes for 97 yards. He scored a touchdown in a bowl victory over Iowa State. He played in only game for Illinois last fall and had no rushes or receptions.

Smaller numbers, bigger gains?

Though his team was smaller in numbers for spring, Hendrickson saw growth as the 15 practices played out.

“Kind of like with (how) Covid taught you new ways to do things from all the different aspects of life, I think when you have lighter depth numbers, it teaches you (new) ways to coach and to become a better coach,” Hendrickson said. “We did that. We were very creative. We didn’t practice very long, but it was really hyper-focused on individual drills, opportunities to grow in the classroom through film study and all those things.

“We did a lot of teaching in the classroom with short, concise practices when we got out here. And that led us to where we got to tonight.”

Running back Ludovick Choquette is WIU’s top returning rusher and receiver.

“We established a strong confidence in the team. We were working hard on building a connection with the new coaches,” Choquette said. “We did a great job of getting together and learning the plays as fast as we could.”

Offensive lineman Ty O’Janovac said, “We really got together as a group, that was one major thing. We got to learn a new offense. It takes a lot of effort from everybody just to get a system in and hit it running. We did a pretty good job with that.

“A lot of these guys got reps that they never got before, so it was a lot of experience to pick up this spring.”

Wide-open competitions

Given his current roster size, Hendrickson knows his work is far from being done.

“There’s a select, small amount that have solidified themselves as to where we want them to be and where we know they’ll be in the fall,” Hendrickson said. “Most of the spots are open, so we’ve got to evaluate the film from tonight and see where we’re at and then continue to recruit.

“We’ve got a really good freshmen class (coming in), a lot of them were here tonight, and they’ll be competing right now. When they show up in June, they’re going to be ready to go,” Hendrickson said.

As things stand, WIU has five quarterbacks on its roster: grad student Henry Ogala, senior Drake Day and juniors Clay Bruno, Nick Davenport and Dylan Tabone. None threw a pass for the Leathernecks last season.

“It’s wide open,” Hendrickson said of the quarterback competition. “You saw everybody get reps today and that’s how we’re approaching it, as a wide open competition.”

How wide open? So much so that Hendrickson did not put a “hands-off” policy in place for the spring scrimmage, meaning that quarterbacks could be hit and tackled. It’s something Hendrickson has done at other stops in his coaching career.

“Sometimes you have to do that when the competition is wide open. I don’t think it would be fair to those guys to go into the (season-opening) Tennessee Martin game without ever seeing them get hit . . . at this juncture in camp, we felt very comfortable letting them go live. They’re good football players and we want to see them go play football.”

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