Over the weekend, I ran into several current and former SIU athletes, prompting this Twitter post announcing my excitement. And while I understand that it is only July, I have good reason to believe things are on the upswing for Southern Illinois University.
I wonder what second-year head coach Dale Lennon and the football Salukis have up their sleeves for an encore. In his first year, Lennon was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference's coach of the year as SIU posted a 9-2 regular season record en route to a conference championship and the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Playoffs.
Yes, a college football playoff system. Whodathunkit?
The Salukis return all but one starter from last season's defense. Everyone knows that. But what exactly does it mean for the team's success? How about everything.
The only departed starter is the ever-so-popular James Cloud, but SIU returns fellow linebackers Brandin Jordan, Ryan Patton and Chauncey Mixon. Nose tackles Chris Arthurs and Tony Colletti also return, meaning that six of the starting front seven returns. And that will lead to much havoc for opposing offensive lines.
The emergence of cornerback Korey Lindsey solidifies the secondary gives me hope that teams will struggle to move the ball through the air. After a strong sophomore season, few teams dared to throw to Brandon Williams' side, so they picked on Lindsey. Who, in turn, picked back with a few interceptions.
The bad news is that junior quarterback Chris Dieker loses one of his top targets in wide out Damian Sherman. But the biggest concern is finding someone to replace Larry Warner's production out of th ebackfield and on special teams.
The good news is that Joe Allaria is progressing as more than a slot receiver and could be in the running in the return game. He will be joined by Marc Cheatham, Jeff Evans, who will hopefully be healthy, and Bryce Morris.
For those of you worried about who will be toting the rock, don't worry. SIU churns out running backs like Michael Jackson churned out No. 1 hits. It seems that every year, Saluki coaches, fans and beat writers have to ask who's going to be the top dawg in the backfield. And every year, several Salukis emerge to be productive backs.
Larry Warner is the latest in the line of great Saluki running backs. He followed the lead of John Randle, who came after Arkee Whitlock, who came after Brandon Jacobs. So, who will it be this year? Richard White and Deji Karim get first dibs on the tailback position, but don't be surprised if Anton Wilkins or Jonate Govan get a chance, as Lennon loves show off the team's depth.
Last we saw placekicker Kyle Dougherty, he missed a few crucial kicks in the team's playoff loss against New Hampshire. Consider that a fluke. Dougherty will come back strong, I'm sure. And expect punter Scott Ravanesi to rebound as well from his issues. Ravanesi had several punts blocked last year, including one in the playoff game. Lennon said SIU will re-work some punt protection schemes to prevent opponents pressuring the punter.
The Salukis start their season against Marshall, which will be a very winnable game against a Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A) opponent. SIU returns home to face the sacrificial lamb game against Division II Southwest Baptist.
Then the fun starts.
The defending champs travel to Macomb, Ill., to face one in-state rival (Western Illinois) before coming home to face another in-state foe Illinois State, which will come into the match-up with a new coach and probably some new schemes.
It is very likely the conference champion will be decided in the UNI Dome when SIU travels to Northern Iowa on Oct. 17. That place has been a house of horrors for the Salukis, but Dale Lennon pounced on the Panthers in his only previous appearance at the Dome of Doom.
The match-up I look forward to most is the payback game against North Dakota State. The Salukis went up to the Fargo Dome and took an early lead before watching it all fall apart. After that loss, Larry Warner delivered the pep talk that would charge SIU into a conference champion.
And 'til this day, Warner still will not share the details of that speech. But if SIU needs it, I'm sure Larry Lightening won't mind repeating himself for his former teammates.
Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow, featuring how and why the SIU men's basketball team will win 20 games next year.
(Image Credit: Sean McGahan Exclusive)