CARBONDALE — Je'Quan Burton jogged out to the Fargodome field about an hour before SIU's regular-season finale at top-ranked North Dakota State, and couldn't see a thing.
Looking through his protective visor up at the lights, the freshman wide receiver/kick returner could only see the glare. The first time he saw the football was the opening kickoff.
"I came out of the huddle, and I had the butterflies in my stomach," said Burton, a preseason all-conference kick returner this year. "The only thing that went through my mind was 'Don't muff this kickoff return, or coach gonna chew your (butt) out.' As soon as I caught it, I kind of got comfortable."
And once the 5-foot-9, 175-pound true freshman secured the ball, he showed why he came all the way from Orlando to play for the Salukis. Burton found a seam on the return, burst through it, and completed a 100-yard touchdown after he eluded the punter. SIU couldn't keep the lead — the Bison won 65-17 and went on to win the national championship — but Burton gained a lot from the coaching staff putting him back there against the best team in the country.
Burton finished the season as SIU's fifth-leading rusher, sixth-leading receiver and top kick returner.
"Sometimes last year I had doubts, like 'Am I ever gonna see the field?'" Burton said. "Actually getting a bigger part in the offense this year, and actually having to step up and make plays, and stuff. I'm willing to take that role and put that on my back."
The second-leading returning receiver for the Salukis, Burton is expected to play an even bigger role in an offense without a lot of established big-play threats. Raphael Leonard, who tied for second in the Missouri Valley Football Conference in receptions per game (5.2), was the league's third-best wide receiver in yards per game (77). Leonard led SIU with 57 catches, 847 yards (nearly double Landon Lenoir's 486, which was second) and seven receiving touchdowns. He is currently competing for a roster spot with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Lenoir, Burton and junior Sam Bonansinga are the top returning receivers for the Salukis. Lenoir, a fourth-year junior who has battled injuries, scored his first two career touchdowns last season. Bonansinga has nine career catches in 18 career games. SIU added Avante Cox, a 5-10, 175-pound junior from Wyoming that played with Nic Baker at Rochester High School, and have some promising freshmen, but Burton will be near the top of No. 17 Southeast Missouri State's scouting report before the Redhawks host the Salukis Aug. 29.
"He's the guy on our team that you want to get him the ball, he's got speed and playmaking ability," SIU coach Nick Hill said. "He gets some touches in the return game and he's a good wide receiver, too. Still have to continue to keep pushing the small details because he's a guy you'd like to have on the field all the time."
Lenoir, one of four juniors in the wide receiver room with Bonansinga, Cox and Sam Thompson, likes the variety the Salukis have with their 10 guys. And with running back D.J. Davis, the team's third-leading receiver last year with 29 catches and 201 yards.
"I feel like we got everything," he said. "Speed. Quickness. Catching ability. Avante, Bonnie, 'Quan, D.J. It's great right now. We're just putting everything together. It's all about execution, and I feel like we're doing that, and that's the most important thing for now."