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SIU FOOTBALL

SIU Football | Fletcher: 'Be ourselves every week'

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SIU safety Antonio Fletcher (7) trips up Northwestern running back Cam Porter (4) during the first quarter at Ryan Field on Sept. 17 in Evanston.

When SIU upset Northwestern 31-24 last week in Evanston, it marked the Salukis’ second win over an FBS program in coach Nick Hill’s seven years.

There was nearly a third one back in 2019, just two weeks after SIU walloped Massachusetts 45-20 in Amherst. The Salukis made the bus trip to Arkansas State and lost a shootout to the Red Wolves 41-28.

One common factor in that game and the one last week: Safety Antonio Fletcher, who three years ago wore Arkansas State’s uniform. He transferred to SIU over the winter and made 10 tackles at Northwestern, as well as a pass break-up.

“Probably the best feeling I’ve had in a long time,” he said after practice Wednesday. “First win with a different group of guys, so it was nice to experience. Any team can beat anyone, you know? We kept pressing throughout the game.

“We could have done that anywhere; we could have played an SEC team or an ACC team and did the same thing if we play the way we’re supposed to play. We have to be ourselves every week; we can’t play up to an opponent or down to one.”

The 5-foot-10-inch, 192-pound Fletcher, who had four tackles and a pass break-up when he played against SIU in 2019, suited up for 42 games over four years at Arkansas State. His best year was probably 2019, when he made 58 tackles in 13 games while breaking up five passes, recording four tackles for loss and forcing a fumble.

Fletcher left the Red Wolves’ program after six games last year. He took an official visit to SIU in December and felt something right away he didn’t necessarily feel in Jonesboro.

“Wanted,” he said. “I came to a basketball game here and players I didn’t even know were hitting me up, as were the coaches. I felt like they wanted and needed me here. The coaches just wanted the best version of me.”

That version wasn’t going to happen overnight, though. While some might think a guy who’s been a solid contributor to a good FBS program should come into an FCS program and ball out right away, Fletcher knew better.

There was a playbook to learn, new teammates’ tendencies to absorb and a different coaching staff’s techniques to figure out. And that’s before one factors in the off-field stuff. Oh, and there was also the fact Fletcher was trying to win playing time in what was considered one of the team’s deepest position groups in the preseason.

“Just jelling with the guys was harder than coming in here and learning the plays,” he said. “I’m a quick learner but learning the people I’m on the field with was the hardest part. I think last weekend, we got to the point where I could say, ‘This is my brother.’

“Off the field, probably being more vocal. I’m not really that vocal, but it’s coming easier. Just talking with the guys isn’t my strength, but I’m getting there.”

Like the rest of his teammates, Fletcher spent Saturday night basking in the glow of one of the program’s biggest wins in recent history. But it’s back to business this week as the Salukis open Missouri Valley Football Conference play this week at home with North Dakota.

As one of the team’s newcomers, Fletcher has noticed something about the MVFC pretty quickly.

“There’s a lot of hidden gems in this league,” he said. “The offensive linemen and the receivers are all physical. They really like to block you. There’s a lot of guys that can play on Sunday – and will play on Sunday.”

Fletcher hopes he’s one of those guys. The fifth-year junior looks around the facility, sees the images of Jeremy Chinn and Madre Harper, who are both with the Carolina Panthers, and has the incentive he needs to follow their path to the NFL.

How committed is Fletcher to it? He says he has no Plan B. It’s NFL or else for him.

“I just want to make my family proud and make it to the NFL,” he said. “To see those guys who have made the NFL from here in this exact same position … those guys make me feel like it’s real close. It’s possible.”

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