Looking at Southern Illinois University’s football scores last year, it’s obvious where the Salukis need improvement.

The defense yielded an average of 40.7 points per game last year. Ole Miss lit up the Salukis for 76 and North Dakota State torched SIU for 65. South Dakota State (57) and Illinois State (51) also posted some serious numbers.

Granted, college football is becoming an offensive game. Teams now average more than 30 points per game. But, the SIU defense gave up more than 30 points on seven occasions last year.

In the meantime, the SIU offense was, well, average. The Salukis scored 30.5 points per game.

SIU returns with two of the best defensive players in the conference in safety Jeremy Chinn and lineman Anthony Knighton. Several other returnees had solid seasons last year, and injuries, particularly in the backfield, were an issue.

Still, there is no sugar-coating it, the Saluki defense will have to improve considerably just to reach the .500 mark. As always, the Missouri Valley Football Conference is expected to be stacked. The Salukis were picked ninth in a 10-team field.

Throw in a pair of FBS games, UMass and Arkansas State, and Nick Hill is facing an uphill climb in his fourth season. Certainly, UMass and Arkansas State aren’t SEC teams, but SIU will have its hands full this year.

One area that could really help the defense … the offense.

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Despite injuries and an ongoing quarterback battle, the Saluki offense managed to score consistently last year. SIU scored 24 points or more in seven of 11 games last year. And, the Salukis have a key weapon returning in D.J. Davis.

Davis, who is listed at 5-foot-8 and 168 pounds, was remarkably resilient last year. Despite his slight frame, he got 178 carries last year, lugging the football for 1,118 yards. It marked the first time in six seasons SIU had a 1,000-yard rusher.

Davis’ high-water mark was 201 yards against South Dakota State. Western Illinois held him to just 18.

With Matt DeSomer at the reins late last year, the Salukis morphed into more of a running team. And, that may be just the personality the Salukis need this season. Given the defensive struggles, Davis plugging away and moving the chains regularly would minimize the time the defense spends on the field.

Unfortunately, time of possession and clock management have become passe. The game is about scoring often, scoring fast and scoring now. Unless the SIU defense undergoes a remarkable transformation, the Salukis will want to maintain possession as much as possible.

With DeSomer and Sam Straub both gone, the Salukis will have a new look at quarterback this year. It seems like an excellent opportunity to establish a strong ground game.

The Saluki season begins Aug. 29 at Southeast Missouri State. SIU dropped a 48-44 decision to the Redhawks last year. It seemed like a bad loss at the time, but the Redhawks advanced to the playoffs and finished 9-4.

With that in mind, opening night should provide a realistic look at the season.

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On Twitter: @LesWinkeler​


Sports editor

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

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