Lennon: Improvements to be made
This week marks the beginning of spring practices for the SIU football team, and with it comes the optimism of a fresh start.
While Saluki fans’ minds may be focused on the upcoming season, the players and coaches said they know proper preparation during spring can lead to greater success in the fall, when the same bleachers that currently stand empty at Saluki Stadium will be filled with the rambunctious Saluki faithful.
“The first couple days you just try to get (everything) back to normal,” coach Dale Lennon said. “I was happy today, but we definitely have improvements to make.”
One of those improvements will be replacing the 1,121 yards and 17 touchdowns that junior running back Jewel Hampton contributed last season, Lennon said. The transfer from Iowa was the Salukis’ biggest offensive weapon in his only season in Carbondale.
Hampton filed for this year’s NFL draft, which will be held April 26-28.
Lennon said he expects to employ a multiple-back system next season.
“We’ve got four good running backs in camp, so it will definitely be a ‘running back by committee’,” he said. “The goal of spring ball will be to see how the backs work together.”
One Saluki running back with potential for a big season is Steve Strother, who will be a senior this fall.
“Jewel is gone, so somebody is going to have to step up, whether it’s one back, two back, or three of us,” Strother said. “Jewel did a lot for us and really carried the offense, so we’re definitely going to have to step up as the running backs and show that we can get the job done.”
At 5’8” and 170 pounds, Strother was the lightning to Hampton’s thunder last season, providing a change of pace in SIU’s ground attack. Strother finished the season with an average of six yards per carry and a touchdown in 46 attempts.
“(Hampton) is more of a power back,” Strother said. “I can make people miss, whereas he was really good at going up the middle and running people over. I want to prove that I should be starting right now and show everyone that I can get the job done, even though I’m not the biggest back.”
Quarterback is another position in question for the Saluki camp. Junior Paul McIntosh won the starting job last season, but he separated his shoulder in a week 4 matchup with Western Illinois. His replacement, sophomore Kory Faulkner, handled the job for the remainder of the season, finishing with 1,477 passing yards and five touchdowns, while throwing eight interceptions. McIntosh ended with 649 passing yards, two touchdowns and four picks.
Both quarterbacks showed they were capable of running the offense, but only Faulkner will be given the chance to prove himself further this spring, as McIntosh is still recovering from the injury.
“Kory has the experience of starting seven games last year and we want to see how he’s improved his game over the offseason,” Lennon said. “It’s an opportunity for Kory to really take a step forward, so that’s his goal for the spring. It’s going to be competitive at the quarterback position, and we know what Paul can do. We just have to see if he can get healthy enough to come back and be a factor.”
Though the running back and quarterback positions are arguably some of the most important spots the Salukis need to fill, Lennon said the entire team needs to improve in order to build on its dismal 4-7 2011 campaign.
“Overall, we’ve got to get better,” he said. “It’s a holistic approach and we are looking at everything that we do. If you look at our games last year, we had a chance to win every single game and we just couldn’t do it at the end.”
Of SIU’s seven losses last season, only one was by more than 12 points, a 42-24 drubbing by Ole Miss of the Southeastern Conference.
Defensive end Kenneth Boatwright said the team is concentrating solely on the upcoming season.
“Forget about (last year),” he said. “It’s the start of a whole new season. We’ve got a whole new set of games ahead of us.”
Fans can take their first look at the Saluki football team in the Maroon/White Spring Game April 20 at Saluki Stadium. Kick-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.