It might be the fresh feeling of a new year. Or maybe its the confidence that any old mistakes have been corrected, turning past losses into present wins.
It might even be the smell of fresh-cut grass, though probably not for SIU; Saluki Stadium has artificial turf.
No matter the reason, every new football season carries unwavering optimism with it. As Thursday’s season opener at Eastern Illinois approaches, the Salukis believe they are ready.
On the outside, there is reason to believe the team has a successful year in store. The Salukis feature a mammoth defensive line — led by senior Ken Boatright, who led the team with 6.5 sacks last year — on the end and senior nose tackle Kayon Swanson, who led the team in tackles last season with 52. Seniors Jayson Dimanche and Joe Okon also return as starting linebackers.
On the ball’s offensive side, the team returns junior quarterback Kory Faulkner, a player with the arm to throw the ball downfield and the wheels to move the chains if no receivers are open. Faulkner has the tools to be a success, but his passes must find the endzone more and the opposition less. He accumulated only five passing touchdowns and threw eight interceptions last year.
His favorite target will likely be sophomore tight end MyCole Pruitt — the player who led the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns last season with 43, 562 and three, respectively.
Also returning for the Salukis is a seasoned special teams core led by preseason all-conference selection senior Steve Strother at kick returner.
There are plenty of positives for a team that returns seven starters on offense and six on defense.
A different look at the program, however, might cast it in a more negative light. Last season, the Salukis managed only four wins. The team managed only five the season before.
This year’s team must find a way to tally a few more W’s.
There are questions surrounding a secondary that returns only one starter, junior cornerback Terrell Wilson. Last season’s Saluki defense ranked eighth in the conference against the pass. At the start of fall camp, coach Dale Lennon said a key to a successful season will be to give up fewer big plays, or gains of 20 yards or more.
Limiting long gains will be crucial, and Lennon shouldn’t hesitate to blitz whenever necessary. Added pressure on the opposing quarterback makes for shaky passes downfield, which can effectively hide the secondary’s weaknesses.
The Salukis will also need to replace a large chunk of their offense from last season that was vacated when running back Jewel Hampton took his talents to the NFL April 28. Lennon has stressed that the team will employ a “by-committee” approach to the ground game, and he expects shifty backs Strother and senior Mulku Kalokoh to share carries.
Iowa transfer sophomore Mika’il McCall also figures to get the ball between the tackles. McCall is the wild card. At his best, he could draw comparisons to Hampton all season. But his inexperience pales in comparison to that of Strother, who has seen carries for the Salukis since 2009, his freshman year.
The Salukis need to win right away, as the schedule’s difficulty only increases as the season progresses.
Following Thursday’s bout with Eastern, SIU will travel to Miami University in Ohio Sept. 8 before the team’s home opener against SEMO Sept. 15. The Salukis will round out the season’s first month with a trip to Missouri State Sept. 22.
Though three of the first four games will be on the road, it is crucial for SIU to come out of the first month with a winning record.
After a home matchup with Indiana State Sept. 29, the following month consists of games against Illinois State, Northern Iowa, Youngstown State and the defending FCS champion North Dakota State. Consequently, these four schools were voted as the best in the conference in the MVC preseason poll. Following that rough stretch, SIU will close the season against South Dakota State and Western Illinois.
This season’s schedule shows little mercy down the stretch. A slow start almost certainly ensures a third consecutive losing season. Big early wins could turn the conference on its head.
It’s a good thing the Salukis believe they are ready.