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Sports editor

Les Winkeler is sports editor and outdoors writer for The Southern Illinoisan.

The Southern Illinois University football team will be better this year.

How much better may be difficult to quantify. In the Missouri Valley Football Conference, it’s quite possible to take massive steps forward without seeing a marked improvement in won-loss record.

The reasons for my optimism? The defensive front was incredibly young last year. The group matured as the season progressed, and virtually all of them return. Second, several newcomers made significant contributions at wide receiver last year. With a year in the system, they most assuredly will be better.

Will that improvement translate to wins? The next 12 weeks will answer that question.

Here’s what has to happen for the Salukis to move up in the standings:

1. They have to stay healthy.

I know what you’re thinking, “Well, duh!” SIU was putting together a decent season last year when starting quarterback Sam Straub went down with a wrist injury. He missed the rest of the year and the Salukis failed to win another game.

If SIU is going to make a run at the playoffs, Straub has to be under center.

In addition, the Salukis can ill afford to lose an experienced player like Jeremy Chinn in the defensive backfield. While the front seven is more experienced this season, the secondary got younger. Chinn has to be on the field.

How important was Chinn last year? He created seven turnovers.

2. The kicking game has to improve.

The margin of error in the Missouri Valley Football Conference is razor thin. A missed PAT can be costly. The Salukis certainly can’t afford to drive the ball into the red zone, see their offense stall, and then misfire on a field goal attempt of 30 yards or less.

That was the one weakness of special teams last year.

3. The Salukis have to be able to run the football.

Yeah, I know, I’m a dinosaur. The running game is, ironically enough, considered passe.

That seems to be the conventional wisdom, but you’ll never convince me. There will be times and conditions where throwing the ball is difficult. When that happens, it’s important to have faith that the offense can convert a third-and-one or third-and-three without going to the air or relying on deception.

D.J. Davis has proven to be a playmaker. If the Salukis can get him in space, he can make things happen. Jonathon Mixon is Davis’ backup. The senior has proven he can grind out the tough yards through his career.

4. The offensive line must jell.

Obviously, points one and three depend on the quality of the offensive line. The line must protect Straub and create seams for Davis, Mixon, et al.

The Salukis are big up front, with four of the front five topping the scales at 300 pounds or better. But, as a group, they started just 28 games last year. The performance of that unit will be a marker of overall success.

5. Special teams need to be just that.

When they Salukis made their playoff runs earlier this century their special teams were incredible. They blocked punts, they smothered kickoffs and the Saluki punters were actual weapons.

That punter, capable of turning field position around, was notably absent in recent years — until last year. Lane Reazin was brilliant at times last year. The kicking game is often overlooked, but the ability to kick the ball out of trouble is a huge plus for the defense.

We’ll soon see where the Salukis stand. Kickoff at Murray State is at 6 p.m. Thursday.

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LES WINKELER is the sports editor for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at les.winkeler@thesouthern.com, or call 618-351-5088. Follow him on Twitter at @LesWinkeler.

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