CARBONDALE — The remnants of last year's record-breaking Saluki defense hang on the walls of the locker room, but they're not exactly positive reinforcement.
When SIU's players returned for the summer, unofficially beginning to prepare for the 2019 season, they saw the numbers. Of the 10 teams in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, SIU's scoring defense ranked dead last. Forty-point-seven points per game allowed, a school record. Rushing defense — ninth. Passing defense — 10th. Total defense — 10th.
"We definitely are using it as motivation this year," said senior safety Jeremy Chinn, one of eight returning starters on defense this year and a preseason third team All-American by STATS. "We have signs in lockers. First day we got here they showed us the rankings of the Missouri Valley defense statistics and stuff, and we were dead last, so we definitely use it to motivate us."
Defensive tackle Blake Parzych, one of four team captains this year with Chinn, running back D.J. Davis and offensive guard ZeVeon Furcron, had one number stick in his brain over the offseason. Southeast Missouri State, which went on to reach the playoffs, rushed for 352 yards and four touchdowns on 40 carries in a 48-44 win that appeared to turn the Salukis' 2-9 season. And 311 yards came from one man, running back Marquis Terry.
"There was one game, specifically, where they had 352 yards of rushing, and that's a lot on the front four, so we need to flip things around," Parzych said. "We kind of looked at the common denominator, and we take it on ourselves to have a great season this year so that we can help the defense. If we have a great day, I feel like our defense will have a great day, as well."
SIU has its entire starting defensive line back from last season, making the Salukis one of the few teams that can say that, but experience didn't do much for them in 2018. Outside linebacker Cody Crider, one of the team's leading tacklers the last two years, suffered a season-ending knee injury against Southeast Missouri State. SIU also lost five of its top-six defensive backs to season-ending injuries, mostly over the first half of the year, but the front seven struggled mightily.
Opponents rushed for over 200 yards four times in the Salukis' last eight games, and threw for over 300 yards four times. SIU forced five turnovers in its season-opening win over Murray State, and even forced at least one turnover in six of its last eight games, but still finished with a minus-8 turnover margin.
"You have a lot of starters, a number of guys that played a lot of reps a year ago," new defensive coordinator Jason Petrino said. "You also have a lot of guys who had a lot of reps, who didn't fare too well, so you're always trying to work through some of the details and the situations. The nice part about now is now you're talking about situations, where in the spring you're talking about install."
Parzych, a 6-foot-3, 293-pound senior tackle, has 41 career tackles in 31 games. Senior tackle Malik Haynes and fourth-year junior defensive end Jordan Berner had 7.5 and 7.0 tackles for loss last year, respectively, and fourth-year junior end Anthony Knighton is off to a historic pace.
Knighton, a 6-4, 260-pound preseason all-conference pick, was SIU's sixth-leading tackler last year with 45 stops. His 13.5 tackles for loss were the fourth-most in the MVFC, and his 8.5 sacks tied for the third-most in the league with Northern Iowa's Rickey Neal. Knighton's 15.0 career sacks rank 11th in school history, and his 24.0 tackles for loss are tied for 20th.
Knighton has never been a first team all-conference pick, but has high hopes this year.
"It would mean a lot, and show that my work has not gone unnoticed," Knighton said.
SIU coach Nick Hill noticed some progress on the defensive side this year, he said after Wednesday's first scrimmage of fall camp. Saluki quarterbacks were picked off twice in the red zone Wednesday.
Hill and his staff added linebacker Tim Johns, a transfer from Purdue, and three transfers at cornerback to add to three returning starters at those positions. Tre Strong, a fifth-year senior from Utah, Jonathan Thompson, a junior from Highland Community College, and junior Christian Maddox, a transfer from Pima (Arizona) Community College, are battling returning starter Torian Lewis and three players that started last season (Madre Harper, Chance Bush and Terrance Henley) for reps at cornerback.
In addition to the front four, SIU brings back middle linebacker and leading tackler Bryce Notree, weakside linebacker Luke Giegling and Crider. Notree started all 11 games last season, and Giegling started the last seven as a redshirt freshman.
"Everybody was feeling good about our defense last year. We went to Murray (State) and got five turnovers and scored three times and they were the best thing going," Hill said. "It's a consistency thing. We play in a great league and there's going to be times where we're gonna have to score some points. I like where we're at defensively. I'm encouraged by this group. It's the same group but they're a year older, we've added a couple of pieces, we've added some new scheme, so, I'm excited about those guys."