CARBONDALE — Coaches will tell you tackle is one of the most difficult positions to recruit for, with the length, size and footwork required.
For the first time in a long time, SIU might have two solid starters at those spots this fall, with a few guys behind them battling for reps. Left tackle Austin Olsen came out of retirement — OK, physical therapy school —in time to go through spring workouts and was the Salukis' only preseason first team all-conference pick. DeVondre Seymour, a 6-foot-6, 305-pound, fifth-year senior that was a four-star prospect out of high school, started the last five games at right tackle.
SIU also returns center Jacob Marnin, right guard Josh Podzielinski, junior Ben Bailey, who started the first six games of the year at right tackle, and part-time starter Ernest Dye, Jr.
"We still have to go out and perform, but this has a chance to be the best offensive line in the last four years," SIU coach Nick Hill said. "We have a lot of guys that will compete. Top to bottom, this will be the first time the competition is at every single position, that could be starters."
Marnin, a 6-1, 322-pound redshirt sophomore, started all 11 games in the middle last year. A recipient of the Missouri Valley Football Conference Commissioner's Academic Excellence Award, the highest academic award the league gives out, Marnin helped SIU set single-season passing records for completions (300), attempts (472) and yards (3,660).
Aaron Harris, a 6-4 332-pound junior from Chicago, played in six games last year and started one at right guard.
Hill added one junior college lineman, all-conference center Jack White (6-2, 347 pounds). White, a Chicago native, played his last two seasons at Fullerton College and Copiah-Lincoln (Mississippi) Community College. He can play guard or center and went through spring drills.
Tight End: Varble back to lead tight ends
Jacob Varble, SIU's starting tight end last year, missed most of spring drills because of injury but is expected back at 100 percent when training camp opens Saturday.
Varble, a 6-4, 240-pound sophoore from Jerseyville, started 10 of 11 games as a redshirt freshman in 2016. He caught 16 passes for 202 yards and one touchdown, against Murray State. He was ranked the fifth-best returning tight end in the Valley by HERO Sports and could add another big piece to the front five.
John Gardner, a converted wide receiver, is expected to be the backup. Gardner played in seven games last year, catching one ball for 42 yards. The only other tight ends on the roster are redshirt freshman Jaylin Carter (6-4, 241), and two true freshmen, Travis Pickert (6-4, 222) and Cole Steward (6-3, 235).
Fullback Hans Carmien could also move down to the end of the offensive line this season. Carmien started there against South Dakota State.
SIU hopes to jump-start a running game that averaged only 3.6 yards a carry last season. Running back Jonathan Mixon had 10 of the team's 19 rushing touchdowns.
Wide Receiver: Iwema, James, and Jones give Salukis deep threats and possession receivers
Jimmy Jones, SIU's sixth-leading receiver last season, is the only player that is expected to be a bit limited when training camp opens this weekend. Jones missed the last five games with a foot injury last season.
At the time, he was tied with Connor Iwema for the team lead with 28 catches.
Iwema, a 6-foot, 208-pound senior, led the Salukis with five receiving touchdowns last season in 10 games. He caught 44 passes, one behind leader Billy Reed, for 557 yards (an average of 12.7 yards a reception). Iwema's 58 career catches are the second-most on the team, behind Jones' 66 in 18 games.
Darrell James (17.9 yards per catch last year) and Israel Lamprakes (18.7 yards a reception) were two of SIU's top deep threats. With Lamprakes gone after a sixth season, James hopes to move up to a starting spot. The 6-foot, 184-pound junior from Fort Worth, Texas, has 50 career catches in 21 games for 827 yards and four touchdowns.
Running backs D.J. Davis (29 catches for 212 yards) and Daquan Isom (21 catches for 162 yards in five games) also return out of the backfield. Cameron Walter, who started the last five games of the year at running back, caught 19 passes for 111 yards.
SIU also expects big things from Landon Lenoir, who played more toward the end of the season as a true freshman last year, and redshirt freshman Sam Bonansinga. The Salukis also added Raphael Leonard, a 6-2, 194-pound junior from East Mississippi Community College, the school made famous by Netflix's documentary series "Last Chance U."
Leonard caught 23 passes for 360 yards and seven touchdowns at East Mississippi.