CARBONDALE -- There was no time like the present for SIU defensive end Khari Waithe-Alexander Saturday.
The 6-foot-2, 262-pound junior was relegated to working out on the sidelines during spring football after having a torn labrum repaired after the 2015 season. Saturday's first practice of training camp featured two 11-on-11 drills, even though players had only helmets and shorts on.
Waithe-Alexander never shied away.
"I like that," he said. "I liked that you get a lot of real-time situations off the jump so you don't have to worry about it as much once we get the pads. It's a better transition to when we start hitting, and just getting in the right beginning."
Training camp is a subtle new beginning for Waithe-Alexander, 21, the only returning starter on the defensive line. The 3-4 scheme he played in as a true freshman and sophomore promoted the front three taking on as many blockers as they could to allow others to make a play. This year's 4-3 features a little "every man-for-himself" mentality, with some success in numbers.
"It's that all of us have the opportunity to make plays," Waithe-Alexander said. "It's a huge difference for me. I played the nose and tackle last year, and now I get all this space on the ends, so I feel a huge difference, but every role in football is important. On some plays, if he needs us to shuffle down and eat up some blocks, still, even as an end, there's still going to be plays where we can't make a play.
"It's about leaning on each other and fitting into the scheme."
The scheme for SIU's defensive line in the spring was survive and advance. Waithe-Alexander was one of three potential starters that were coming off offseason surgeries. Fifth-year senior defensive tackle T.J. Beelen tore his ACL in the third game of the season last year, and sophomore tackle Nate Sylvester hurt his knee at Indiana State in Week 7.
"It's good to see some of those guys healthy," SIU coach Nick Hill said. "T.J. back, Nate's back. Khari looks like his old self, so it's good to get that depth back, and we brought in a lot of freshmen, inside guys, that we're going to try to push to compete and play."
Waithe-Alexander had a flair for the dramatic in his third year with the Salukis after coming over from Lilburn, Georgia, in 2013. The redshirt sophomore finished second on the team with 3.0 sacks. All three of them came in the red zone, and one, a fourth-quarter takedown of Liberty quarterback Josh Woodrum near the Salukis' own 22-yard line, ended with a Waithe-Alexander fumble recovery.
He got Southeast Missouri State's Tay Bender for a 10-yard loss on a third-and-8 at the SIU 44 in the fourth quarter on Sept. 12. It forced a punt, but the Salukis eventually fell 27-24 on a last-second field goal. Waithe-Alexander's second-quarter sack of South Dakota's Ryan Saeger led to a field goal that kept the Salukis' 21-20 lead.
Now a fourth-year junior, he hopes to lead a rejuvenated defense back into conference contention. SIU finished 3-8 overall and 2-6 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference last season, its worst season since 2001.
"We're all trying to get to the same point," Waithe-Alexander said. "We're trying to put up another championship on the wall, and everything that gets to do around here."