CARBONDALE — Travis Pickert, a redshirt freshman linebacker who is playing some defensive line in spring ball, tipped a pass to himself for an interception Tuesday.
Even SIU's newbies are playing like veterans on a unit that started seven underclassmen most of the season last year. The Salukis now return all four defensive linemen, including honorable mention all-conference end Anthony Knighton, two linebackers, and four of their top defensive backs. Junior free safety Jeremy Chinn, the third-leading tackler on the squad last year with 66 stops in 11 starts, tied for the team lead with three interceptions.
"We made some improvements, but our job is never done," defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Kraig Paulson said. "We want to get better in every facet. We were close to doublin' our turnover rate from the year before. We were better on first and second down, and third down, but we want to get better on all three downs. Just, consistency, so we want to look at what we're doing and how we're doin' it."
SIU, 4-7 overall and 2-6 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, will do it this season with, finally, some upperclassmen on defense. Knighton was a freshman All-American by HERO Sports and set the school record for sacks in a season by a first-year player with 6.5. Juniors Blake Parzych and Malik Haynes both started at tackle most of the year, along with third-year sophomore ZeVeyon Furcron.
Knighton and third-year sophomore Jordan Berner (26 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss last season), a Chester native, give the Salukis two of the best young ends in the league. SIU lost its top linebacker, senior Kyron Watson, who was second on the team in tackles and an emotional leader, but returns veterans Cody Crider (fourth on the team with 64 stops last year) and Airan Reed (51 tackles, five tackles for loss).
The Salukis intercepted three more passes than last season (23) and recovered five more fumbles (13). Their scoring defense improved 3.5 points per game from 2016.
The Salukis filled their biggest holes with two FBS transfers and some depth. Senior cornerbacks Craig James and Roman Tatum combined for 17 of SIU's 51 pass breakups last year. SIU coach Nick Hill and his staff added two FBS transfers, Titus Booker from Wisconsin and Madre Harper of Oklahoma State, to help fill the void.
Booker didn't play last season for the Badgers, but the four-star recruit out of high school played in 14 games as a sophomore in 2016. Harper played most of 2016 for the Cowboys before being dismissed from the team for breaking team rules in 2017.
Paulson said the group, which is without senior C.J. Jennings for a few more days as he recovers from surgery to repair a torn ACL last year, is picking up the defense quickly.
"They're trying to learn at the speed that we're playing at. They're not looking around for excuses," Paulson said. "(Cornerbacks coach) Carl (Franks) has done a good job, and (safeties coach) Marty (Rodgers) in the back end, of just getting those young guys ready to go."
SIU also returns junior Tory Lewis (nine games last season, five starts) and junior Terrance Henley, who joined the team last year from the University of Miami (Florida). Senior Jefferson Vea, a longtime starter at cornerback and safety, left the team this year to pursue other opportunities as a fifth-year graduate transfer, Hill said.
SIU will need all the defensive backs it can find, Hill said, for not only defense but on special teams. Tatum broke a bone in his toe before the season and missed five games.
"We've found, in these past couple years, that you're going to have to have five or six of 'em ready to go, as far as we've always had one banged up. Or two banged up," Hill said. "You don't want to be put in a spot where you're in a championship race and you don't have great depth there. You want those guys to play on special teams, so, even if you're the third or fourth corner, you're playing 20-30 snaps a game because you're playing 15 on defense and 22 on special teams."