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Sports Column | Todd Hefferman: Saluki Football more prepared for late start than most

Sports Column | Todd Hefferman: Saluki Football more prepared for late start than most


None of us know what the country will look like in one month, nonetheless three, when most Division I football programs are normally in the second week of training camp.

I'm optimistic SIU will be open, to some degree at least, in August. We're close to entering Phase 3 in Gov. J.B. Pritzker's five-phase Reopening Illinois plan, and it's possible the Salukis could structure practices so as not to have groups any larger than 50 should the state reach Phase 4. SIU's new president, Daniel Mahoney, said he's confident the campus could be open this fall.

SIU's football team is more prepared than most in the Missouri Valley Football Conference should it start late. If this happened last year it would have been a potential disaster, with two new coordinators, a 12-game schedule and a quarterback battle. Today, the Salukis have both coordinators back from last season, Jason Petrino on defense and Blake Rolan on offense, as well as 15 starters. Senior Kare Lyles wasn't perfect last season, but is a great start at quarterback going into 2020.

SIU coach Nick Hill said the staff has been able to show players plays online, install packages and hold position meetings without being right next to each other. Some things can't be explained fully online, though, he cautioned.

"Obviously we're not gonna have anything that can replace the walk-thrus and things like that. I told our coaches less is more," Hill said. "We can't be coming up with these big ideas. I think the best teams that come out and win are the ones that are the best at fundamentals. Having a veteran team is key for us. Having our coordinators back is a big plus. Right now, if you were a new staff and trying to implement a new offense or new defense, that would be extremely difficult."

Not that the Salukis don't have things to work out. Lyles threw 12 touchdown passes and was intercepted eight times in 10 games. Stone Labanowitz and Nic Baker are viable starters behind him. Labanowitz was actually the one that won last year's quarterback derby. Whoever is behind center will have a new center, as Jacob Marnin is gone. SIU returns three starters on the offensive line, running back Javon Williams Jr., and its top-two receivers in Avante Cox and Landon Lenoir.

On defense, SIU returns all three starting linebackers, defensive ends Anthony Knighton and Jordan Berner, and safety Qua Brown. Several returning players started at least one game on defense, and the Salukis bolstered their secondary in the 2020 recruiting class.

Missouri State and Youngstown State are dealing with new coaches, on top of the coronavirus pandemic. North Dakota coach Kyle "Bubba" Schweigert, a former defensive coordinator here with Dale Lennon, is catching up on his new conference opponents.

The question everyone is asking themselves is how long it will take to get up to speed, conditioning-wise, if there is no summer conditioning this year. The NCAA's chief medical officer recommends six weeks. The NCAA got rid of two-a-day practices in 2017, but this may be a time it could bring them back.

"We used to get teams ready in four weeks. We just did, because that's the way it was," Schweigert said. "That's when we were a Division II school. Some guys were here all summer. I think six weeks is much better and eight weeks is ideal, but we aren't living in a time where we can have things ideal."

TODD HEFFERMAN covers SIU Athletics for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at, 618-351-5087 or on Twitter at @THefferman. 


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