CARBONDALE — Even with 10 returning starters on his side of the ball, new SIU defensive coordinator Jason Petrino went back to basics this fall.
The former defensive back at Carroll College, an NAIA program in Montana, rolled out a big blue bouncing ball to help his safeties tackle in space. As they rolled to their right, as if they were in coverage, Petrino sent the ball on its way. The players completed the drill by squaring it up and snapping it off the ground.
"You got a moving target, obviously, you got something to drive. It's called long-angle tackling," Petrino said. "You usually just do it with a body, but you got the ball, you can be a little more efficient, but the whole idea is it helps you get your hips down. It really helps with fundamentals. Footwork, be in position, make the tackle, don't overstride."
He put a straight line of tape across the center of players' helmets so he could see where they were looking as the offense shifted and ran different motions. Half of winning on defense goes through the eyes before the snap, and let's face it, there wasn't a lot of winning to see last season. Despite all that experience in the third year of the Nick Hill era (SIU returned nine defensive starters from the year before in Kraig Paulson's system), the Salukis struggled to stop the run, struggled to tackle and suffered through a 2-9 season.
Five of their best six defensive backs were lost to season-ending injuries, and SIU's front seven was gashed for over 200 yards rushing four times. The Salukis allowed a school-record 40.7 points per game. Thirty-one of their opponents' 56 offensive touchdowns came on the ground, the most since 1997.
"We have a new coaching staff, so, we turned the page, but we still remember what happened with last year's defense," said defensive end Anthony Knighton, a preseason all-conference pick.
Knighton is one of four returning starters on the defensive line. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound junior has started 22 straight games after redshirting in 2016 and is already top-20 in career sacks and tackles for loss in SIU history. Chester native Jordan Berner started all 11 games at the other end, and tackles Malik Haynes and Blake Parzych started 21 of 22 games combined last season.
"We have a whole new coaching staff, and a new scheme that I feel like fits our personnel better," Parzych said. "I know, we have some athletes in the defensive room that are just crazy-talented, and I feel like this scheme gives them a little more freedom to just play football. It kind of encourages us to just let loose and just play the scheme that we know how."
Experience, good and bad, and Petrino's scheme will only take the Salukis so far. Senior safety Jeremy Chinn, an NFL prospect that has already drawn interest from 20 teams during training camp, was the only other preseason all-conference pick on SIU's defense.
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Hill believes his defense has the ability to turn around last year's fortunes.
"Eight out of the 11 we were up at halftime and didn't win, so, these guys are battle-tested. We've gotta learn to close some games out and we gotta stay healthy, but I feel like we have the pieces," he said. "Anthony Knighton at the defensive line, Blake Parzych, Malik Haynes, those guys have been here for a while and played a lot of football for us. And then Lucas Giegling was an All-Freshman player for us last year and Bryce Notree, who started every game for us at middle linebacker, is back. In the secondary, Jeremy Chinn, I think, is the best safety in the country. Qua Brown last year at the other safety spot, Michael Elbert played well as a freshman at safety for us, so we feel good."
So does Notree, the team's leading tackler last season with 78 stops.
"It's up to us to get in our spots, but once we get in our spots, it's up to us to make plays, also," he said. "I feel like (Petrino) has a huge confidence in our abilities to make plays, and the scheme that he has is awesome for us as players."
Petrino, a cousin of former Louisville coach Bobby Petrino and Idaho coach Paul Petrino, is uniquely qualified to lead a resurgence on defense. He spent the last three years as the head coach of NAIA program Rocky Mountain College, leading it to the playoffs last year. He has been a defensive coordinator at three different levels, for Division III University of Mary (North Dakota), Division II Winona (Minnesota) State and Missouri Valley Football Conference rival South Dakota (2012-2015), and took over the offense at Rocky Mountain College last year.
The Battlin' Bears led the Frontier Conference in points per game (35 per game), passing yards and total offense.
Petrino was close to coming to Carbondale twice before taking the defensive coordinator job here in December. He has known former Saluki coach Dale Lennon for years and interviewed for the job when Hill first took over. Petrino coached the defensive backs on his alma mater's 2002 national championship squad and helped South Dakota beat North Dakota State in 2015. Revamping the worst scoring defense in the MVFC in less than a year will be a challenge, but Petrino inherited several standouts at his two most important positions.
"If you don't have guys who can hold up a block and get to the quarterback or guys that can cover, it's going to be a long day, so, those are definitely the critical parts, the D-line and the secondary," he said. "More than anything, it's about developing depth. Guys are gonna talk about Knighton and guys like Malik (Haynes), but it's really about developing depth. You're a play away from losing guys in that area."