CARBONDALE — Jordan Berner's recruiting was over when SIU offered him a scholarship.
A two-time Black Diamond Conference MVP, Berner set Chester High School's school record for career tackles (310) and career interceptions (nine). The former linebacker was also a playmaker at tight end for the Yellow Jackets, catching 43 passes for 934 yards and nine touchdowns for a 10-win team in 2014 and seven-win team in 2015. Despite SIU missing the playoffs the last seven years, Berner always wanted to play at Saluki Stadium.
"Get to play in front of the home fans, my family, in an awesome atmosphere," Berner said.
He was even willing to change positions. Berner rushed for five touchdowns and threw for another his senior year, but gave up playing on offense for the challenge of rushing the passer on defense. He started his first game as a redshirt freshman defensive end Saturday against Mississippi Valley State, and will lead the right side of the defensive line this weekend at Southeast Missouri State.
"It was a little difficult transition to the defensive end, but I'm glad I did, because defensive end is a fun position," Berner said. "I like hitting people. I like hitting people and not getting hit."
Berner is one of three redshirt freshmen on the defensive line, along with end Anthony Knighton and tackle ZeVeyon Furcron. Tackle Malik Haynes played in all 11 games last year as a true freshman, and started his second career game as a sophomore Saturday. True freshman Sam Skinner, who missed the opener with mononucleosis, is expected to miss the game at Southeast Missouri State but could return when SIU heads to Memphis Sept. 23.
Either way, Berner will have a big part in the rotation up front because of his effort. His sack on a fourth-and-5 from the 15-yard line in the spring game was one of three by the Saluki defense, which led the Missouri Valley Football Conference in third-down conversions and red zone scoring last year.
"He's a big, physical kid. The biggest thing about him is he goes out there and plays with great effort," SIU defensive line coach Austin Flyger said. "He plays hard, and that's important. If you can go out there and have that motor and never quit, never give up, you're gonna be all right."
Opponents converted only 29.7 percent of their third downs on SIU last season, and scored on 71.4 percent of their red zone possessions.
Mississippi Valley State (0-2) threw for 322 yards, more than half in the second half against Saluki backups, and was held to minus-8 yards rushing. SIU had six sacks in its season-opening 55-3 win, and held the Delta Devils to 3 of 17 on third down.
Berner played at between 225-230 pounds in high school, but bulked up to 260 after his redshirt season. He will have to be nimble at Southeast Missouri State Saturday, as the Redhawks love to roll quarterback Jesse Hosket out from the pocket. Southeast Missouri State (0-2) has allowed one sack in losses at Kansas, an FBS program, and at Dayton.
"We gotta know our job, whatever play we're running," Berner said. "Some plays I take the dive, sometimes I take the jet. Sometimes it's just a straight rush. I just gotta know my job."
Berner is one of nine Southern Illinoisans on the Salukis roster. Nick Wolf is a sophomore defensive end from Nashville and redshirt freshman Nico Gualdoni of Johnston City kicks off. Cornerback Coleton Jeralds (Johnston City), offensive lineman Max Edwards (Johnston City), long snapper Aaron Lence (Anna), defensive lineman Devin Jones (Du Quoin), wide receiver Hunter Milligan (Marion) and tight end Lane Pegram (Metropolis) are all true freshmen.