CARBONDALE — Every coach comes out of spring football encouraged, at least publicly, by what they’ve seen from their team.
But if Saturday’s controlled scrimmage at Saluki Stadium was any indication, SIU coach Nick Hill might have real reason to feel that his defense might be able to find the consistency which eluded it during a 4-7 season in 2017.
In a 100-play session, the high-powered offense that returns an all-conference caliber quarterback, and has several talented running backs and receivers, managed only 13 points. To take it a step further, its only touchdown came on the day’s first possession.
“It’s just confidence,” Hill said. “There’s playmakers back there. Jeremy Chinn, (James) Ceasar and (Michael) Elbert are long on the back end. You see Madre Harper at corner and he’s probably the biggest corner in the country. He’s 6-2 ½ and long.
“Tory Lewis has probably had his best camp since he’s been here. And up front, we’ve got linebackers who can move. Our defensive line has been really young, but they’re coming along. At all three levels, we’re getting better.”
One indication that the defense is winning plays and series is when a linebacker leads your team in tackles. That means the tackles and ends are prevailing at the scrimmage line, allowing linebackers to flow to the ball.
That was the case on Saturday, when redshirt freshman Bryson Strong made nine stops and redshirt sophomore Bryce Notree came up with eight. Another linebacker, Minnesota transfer Jaylen Waters, collected five tackles.
The emergence of Notree is a welcome sight. The 6-2, 229-pound Notree appears to be the replacement at outside linebacker for last year’s leading tackler, Ryan Neal, who made 84 tackles and intercepted three passes.
“We got a lot of work done as a defense,” Notree said. “It felt good to have 11 guys out there going to the football. As a defense, we’re trying to force as many turnovers as we can, because it makes it easier for the offense to score touchdowns.”
One of those turnovers came about halfway through the scrimmage when Elbert, a redshirt freshman, ripped a pass from Sam Bonansinga’s hands for an interception. The Salukis were minus two in turnovers last year, in part because three quarterbacks tossed 17 interceptions.
Eight of those occurred when starter Sam Straub went down for the season with an injury in an Oct. 28 loss at South Dakota. Now healthy, Straub commanded the offense well during his series, completing 12 of 20 passes for 104 yards and a 4-yard touchdown to tight end Jaylon Graham.
“Our receivers played really hard,” he said. “All our guys played really hard. If we have that kind of effort all year, I don’t see any reason why we can’t be really good.”
Hill showcased four different backs in the running game. D.J. Hampton rushed for 91 yards on 15 carries, including an impressive 22-yard burst around right tackle. D.J. Davis bagged 30 yards on six rushes, Chris Perkins 25 on six and Missouri transfer Nate Strong 19 on eight.
The 6-0, 210-pound Strong, a product of the powerful program at East St. Louis, has the potential to be a 20-carry-per-game back but must get into better shape, according to Hill.
“He got to seven or nine carries and you could see on the sideline he was feeling it,” Hill said. “But you can see what a big, physical back he can be. You can see he’s going to be a guy no defensive back wants to tackle. We just have to get him into shape.”
Johnston City product Nico Gualdoni drilled a 38-yard field goal and incumbent kicker Matt Sotiropoulos hit a 36-yarder. But Sotiropoulos also had a 43-yard try blocked by defensive lineman Nick Raby.
SIU will practice on Tuesday before it breaks up until fall camp. The next time players can put pads on in a meaningful situation is August 30, when the Salukis open their season at Murray State.
Notree already has that date circled on his calendar.
“Definitely. Can’t wait for that,” he said when asked about getting to hit someone again.