CARBONDALE — Sam Straub's three-game tryout last season produced the biggest passing game in school history. With a bigger run game at his disposal, the fourth-year junior quarterback hopes to lead the SIU football team to more records this fall.
Straub's 450-yard game in the win over No. 24 Western Illinois, the most in school history for one game, was part of a school-record 3,660 passing yards for the Salukis. With the team out of the playoffs at 2-6, and an uncertain future under center, Saluki coach Nick Hill turned the keys over to Straub in November. The 6-foot-4, 235-pound right-hander lost close competitions in 2015 and 2016 to transfers Mark Iannotti and Josh Straughan, respectively, and had completed one pass for 12 yards before going in late of SIU's opener at Florida Atlantic. Iannotti broke Hill's single-season record for total offense, and Straughan finished as the Missouri Valley Football Conference's leading passer in yards per game (303.6).
With Straughan, a fifth-year senior, gone after the season, and two other unproven quarterbacks in Tanner Hearn and Jhakari Harrison, Hill said he had to find out if Straub was someone he could build around.
Straub completed a 20-yard pass that was nearly intercepted for a touchdown at Florida Atlantic and missed on all four attempts in cleanup duty against Murray State. When he got the start against South Dakota, however, Straub looked the part of 2017 starter. He completed 19 of 34 passes for 339 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, and rushed 16 times for 68 yards and another score to help the Salukis end a five-game losing streak.
"It was not a lot of pressure, but I did feel a lot of pressure, because it was one of those do-or-die things," Straub said. "If I didn't produce, I'm sure that it would be a different story right now, so those last three games gave me a lot of confidence and experience. That goes a long way, in-game experience. You can't teach that, and people say that all the time, and it's completely true."
Straub completed 24 of 41 passes for 366 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions in SIU's 21-14 loss at No. 15 Youngstown State. The following week, the career backup showed how far he'd come from freshman year.
"You gotta learn how to be a quarterback, and not just a thrower, with catchable balls, different arm angles and touch," Hill said. "That's what so many people miss on quarterbacks, because you get so enamored with them in shorts and a T-shirt throwing a 20-yard dig route and pelting a guy in the chest. Well, the game of football is rarely like that. There's somebody in the way, so you've gotta take something off, or you gotta throw it through a window, or you gotta get it in there before they get there."
Three of his top-five receivers from last season return, as well as his top-four running backs. To help take some pressure off Straub and the defense, the Salukis have pledged to focus more on the run game this year.
Four starters return on the offensive line, led by preseason all-conference tackle Austin Olsen, as well as three other players that started at least one game. Sophomore Jacob Marnin started all 11 games last season at center, junior Josh Podzielinski started seven games at right guard, and junior Ben Bailey started the first six games at right tackle before the emergence of DeVondre Seymour.
Junior Aaron Harris, the backup center most of the year last season, started one game at right guard. Seymour and Olsen are expected to start at tackle, and Ernest Dye Jr., a 6-1, 297-pound sophomore, started three games at left guard last season and could start there this season.
"This is the best O-line in the four years that I've been here," Straub said. "I think we have eight guys that have game experience from last year, and then (center) Jack White transferred in from juco and has been playing really well, so, we have a lot of depth, which is huge. I think it's just real important to find those five core guys, because I think our run game will be better, especially with Ice coming back."
Daquan Isom, Ice to his friends and neighbors, missed the last six games of the season with a hamstring injury. His 305 yards on 52 carries (5.9 yards a carry) were still the second-most on the team, and his 69-yard touchdown run against Florida Atlantic proved to be the longest run by any Saluki all season.
Cameron Walter, who led the team with 335 rushing yards on 81 carries, Jonathan Mixon (258 yards, 10 touchdowns on 65 carries) and running back/return specialist D.J. Davis also return.
Straub, 21, was not highly recruited out of Ames High School despite throwing for a school-record 6,703 yards and 60 touchdowns. He led his high school program to an 11-1 record and the state quarterfinals as a senior, and was named first team all-state and all-district in Class 4A.
South Dakota State, SIU and Missouri State offered scholarships, and Northern Iowa and Southeast Missouri State showed interest. Iowa State, which is located in Ames, offered him a preferred walk-on spot, and Iowa and Michigan State took a look at him.
With six starters back on defense, SIU may be in a position to make a move up after finishing tied for last in Hill's first season. The Salukis were picked eighth in the MVFC preseason poll, but after working with his new receivers over the summer, Straub believes that may be a bit low.
"Throughout the summer and the spring, we've met and worked, and worked, and I think if it's gonna happen it's gonna happen now," he said. "There's no regrets with anything we've done, and I think we're ready to go."