CARBONDALE — Blake Parzych gave himself two plays to be a freshman.
The 6-foot-2, 279-pound defensive tackle started his first game against Indiana State last year on Homecoming. Sycamore quarterback Isaac Harker threw an incomplete pass on first down of their first series, and then fumbled after a 4-yard loss. Parzych recovered at the Indiana State 18-yard line, setting up SIU's first score of the game.
The Salukis fell 22-14, but not before gaining a sophomore.
"The big thing I remember against that team, walking out there, my adrenaline was going, and then, the first series I recovered a fumble," Parzych said. "After that, all the jitters went away. 'I was meant to be here. It's time to play. I ain't a freshman any more.' Like, it's time to step up and play like an upperclassman."
Parzych, a true freshman from Minooka, a suburb of Chicago with just over 11,000 residents, had 10 tackles in nine games. He now measures his success in double teams instead of double-digit stops as part of one of SIU's youngest position groups.
With a veteran linebacking corps behind him, if he can't get to the quarterback, the next-best thing he feels he can do is to help someone else get there.
"It's really not about me getting to the quarterback all the time. Taking on two people is big for our linebackers," he said. "I'm just trying to make it easy for the linebackers to get tackles, because I know if I open up that gap, I trust my linebackers behind me to make the tackle."
Linebackers Withney Simon and Cody Crider made the most of their opportunities in Sunday's first scrimmage of spring ball, with four and three tackles, respectively. Simon's four stops tied three others for the most on the team. Both could start with fifth-year senior inside linebacker Markese Jackson and either third-year sophomore Airan Reed, senior Kyron Watson or junior Tori Millender.
The starting foursome on the defensive line is not nearly as clear-cut. Parzych started two games, more than any other returning lineman, as tackles T.J. Beelen and Devante Lee and ends Khari Waithe-Alexander and Dakota Upchurch are all gone. Tackle Malik Haynes, a 5-11, 336-pound mammoth of a man, had 19 tackles and two quarterback hurries in 11 games as a true freshman last season. Redshirt freshman ZeVeyon Furcron, another big tackle at 6-foot, 319 pounds, and redshirt freshman Jordan Berner out of Chester have also gotten a lot of reps this month.
Thursday, SIU put Berner up front with redshirt freshman Anthony Knighton, Haynes and outside linebacker Kamahl March. Chucky Sullivan, a 6-4, 245-pound true freshman that was at a prep school last year, also got some time.
SIU signed one junior college lineman, 6-3, 280-pound Quadarius Reed out of Copiah-Lincoln Community College (Mississippi), and hopes to get the injured Rondarian Bell (6-2, 219) back this fall. The Salukis struggled to get pressure on the quarterback last season, registering one or fewer sacks in five of their last six games.
The defense allowed a school-record 30 passing touchdowns during a 4-7 campaign.
To make more of an impact this year, Parzych said defensive linemen have to be able to evolve. A former baseball player in high school, he quit football for two years and then picked it up again as a freshman in high school. An undersized center on the basketball team, Parzych could always be physical, but had to learn other ways to get by people.
"For me, personally, I grew up power lifting, so strength kind of came naturally," he said. "It's definitely a technical thing. I played defensive end in high school, and now I play defensive tackle here, and kind of had to read double teams and different interior line stuff compared to high school, so it was a lot different.
"Defensive end is one thing. Defensive tackle is another, so, D-line, you really gotta evolve an all-around game."