Not many football fans outside of Carbondale knew much about defensive end Anthony Knighton before Saturday.
The 6-foot-2, 246-pound redshirt freshman watched Khari Waithe-Alexander and Deondre Barnett play from the sidelines last year as a true freshman. The Fort Pierce, Florida, native was a three-star recruit by Scout.com and 247sports.com and got some interest from Cincinnati and Kentucky before signing with SIU.
Knighton played as antsy as everyone else on his team after an extended training camp that took the season opener past Labor Day. He introduced himself to Mississippi Valley State quarterback Jett Even on the Delta Devils' second drive of the day Saturday.
Knighton took one step toward right tackle Roderick Foster's outside shoulder, then pulled him left and bolted inside for the first of two solo sacks in his Saluki debut. Even was wrapped up at his own 15-yard line, 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage, in one of 16 tackles for loss by a re-tooled SIU defense.
"I just tried to be physical, come out with a good pass rush," said Knighton, one of three freshman starters on the defensive line. "Try to hurry up the quarterback so he'd make bad decisions."
The Salukis won 55-3 in their biggest victory since defeating Division II Quincy 70-7 in the first game ever at Saluki Stadium. It was SIU's 15th win in its last 16 home openers.
Knighton's 1-on-1 win was a breath of fresh air to a defense with several returning players, but little starting experience. SIU's No. 1 defense against Mississippi Valley State had a combined 46 career starts, with 29 from senior cornerback Craig James (eight) and senior safety Ryan Neal (21).
Sophomore defensive tackle Malik Haynes, who played in all 11 games last year as a true freshman and started once, was the only defensive lineman with playing experience before Saturday. Knighton, tackle ZeVeyon Furcron and end Jordan Berner were all redshirt freshmen, and will likely start this weekend against Southeast Missouri State, too.
SIU was able to get to the Delta Devils when it needed to Saturday, but mostly when adding linebackers to the pass rush. The pressure is on to make opposing offenses uncomfortable without blitzing. Even with an elite defensive end last year — Barnett signed a free agent deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before getting cut — the Salukis had one sack or less in five of their last six games.
SIU allowed a school-record 30 passing touchdowns last season.
Practicing against left tackle Austin Olsen, a preseason all-conference pick in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, gave Knighton a lot of confidence, he said. Watching Haynes block a punt and pick up three tackles, was encouraging to say the least.
"We just like to compete. We compete with each other, compete with the O-line," Knighton said. "We just compete, so, it brings out the best out of each and every one of us."
Memphis tickets on sale: Tickets are now on sale for SIU's Sept. 23 road game at Memphis, an FBS opponent that competes in the 58,318-seat Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium.
Tickets are on sale for $35 at the SIU Arena Ticket Office and online. Fans can also go to gotigersgo.com and buy their tickets there. Advance tickets are $20, $30, $45 and $65 for the SIU game and $25-70 the day of the game.