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Karé Lyles knew he had the right protection, and was willing to gamble junior wide receiver Avante Cox could beat sophomore cornerback Chance Bush.

In a sport where making plays outweigh potential, Lyles was right on a throw down the sideline from his own 42-yard line. Cox, a 5-foot-11, 170-pound wide receiver who played at Wyoming last season, beat Bush for a 58-yard touchdown.

"It's usually quick-game, but if the corners press, we're gonna convert it to a fade," said Lyles, a 6-1 junior transfer from Scottsdale (Arizona) Community College who is battling redshirt freshman Nic Baker for SIU's starting job. "Avante is one of our fastest guys. I knew that I would have time. It was a firm set. The O-line did a nice job of keeping the hands down and everything. Our running back did a good job of calling where the protection was. Once I saw that coverage, and saw that corner press, I knew that my guy was better and we were gonna take a shot."

It was the play of spring ball for Lyles, a guy in his third offense in the last 10 months. He originally signed with Wisconsin in 2016, but ended up redshirting with a hip injury. After losing a quarterback battle, he went the junior college route in 2018 and came to Carbondale to try to win a job that's there for the taking.

Fifth-year seniors Sam Straub and Matt DeSomer, who gave the Salukis all the potential in the world last season but only two victories, are long gone. After redshirt freshman Austin Reed announced he was transferring after the spring game, Lyles and Baker appear to be 1-2 in the quarterback race going into the fall.

An honorable mention NJCAA All-American, he led Scottsdale CC to a 7-4 record with 2,291 passing yards, 23 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions last season. Ten interceptions in 10 games will not cut it in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, but if he's able to win the job Lyles will have some weapons.

SIU will miss Raphael Leonard, an NFL prospect who was one of the best deep threats in the league last season, but Cox, sophomore Je'Quan Burton and junior Landon Lenoir give the Salukis three legit receivers. Tight end Nigel Kilby is another NFL prospect that will suit up this fall, and the run game took a big step last season with its first 1,000-yard rusher in seven years (D.J. Davis had 1,118). Redshirt freshmen Javon Williams Jr. and Tremayne Lee give the backfield some additional excitement.

"I didn't even know what the record was when I committed here," Lyles said. "I think we can go 14-0 and I want to lead these guys. I think this is a very capable team of doing that. Nothing's impossible here, and I think that we have the guys, we have the skillset, and we have the leadership on this team to do big things."

After back-to-back 4-7 seasons and a 2-9 run last year, Saluki fans would love 16-0 even better - there are 12 regular-season games in 2019 - but would probably be happy with a winning record. With two new coordinators and four new coaches, overall, SIU will struggle to get there without an established quarterback, but if there was a year to move up in the MVFC it's 2019. North Dakota State has a new coach and lost quarterback Easton Stick, and South Dakota State lost Taryn Christion. 

Whoever wins the battle this fall, SIU coach Nick Hill may have two guys capable of leading the Salukis back into contention. Baker, who lost one game in his final two years at Rochester High School, showed he could be an effective quarterback at 5-8, 193 pounds.

"We've got some talent out there, and it's going to work itself out," Hill said after the spring game. "Whoever goes out there under center there Game 1, I'm going to feel really good about, that can be a high-level player in our league, so I'm excited about the talent and the makeup of that group, and Blake (Rolan) coachin' 'em, and the system they're in."

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TODD HEFFERMAN covers SIU athletics for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at todd.hefferman@thesouthern.com, 618-351-5087 or on Twitter at @THefferman.

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Sports reporter

Todd Hefferman has covered SIU athletics since 2008. A University of Iowa grad, he is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and a Heisman Trophy voter.

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