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Saluki Football spring notebook

April 24, 2013

By Tom Weber
Saluki Media Services

With Spring Ball in the books and just over three months until the start of training camp, here are some observations about Saluki Football.

1. The Salukis are loaded at tailback, even though Iowa transfer Mika’il McCall is the team’s lone returnee at the position. He averaged 3.8 yards per carry last season, splitting time with Steve Strother. The coaching staff bolstered the running back spot by bringing in JUCO transfer Tay Willis, Georgia transfer Ken Malcolme, and adding Oregon State transfer Malcolm Agnew, who arrives this summer. The power-running McCall rose to the challenge with a strong spring season, adding some nuance to his running style, and will enter training camp as the incumbent starter. Willis is a smallish back, but he showed excellent quickness, balance and surprising power during scrimmages, and could carve out a role for himself as a change-of-pace runner. You can see why Malcolme was a one-time starter at an SEC school — he is a big-time athlete. There weren’t many holes for him behind the second and third-team offensive lines this spring, however. It will be interesting to see how Agnew fits in. He rushed for 223 yards and three TDs in his first game at Oregon State but his two-year career was slowed by frequent hamstring problems. His brother, Ray Agnew, remains a road-grading force at fullback.

2. Of all the position groups, the offensive line needs to make the most improvement between now and the start of the season, if SIU hopes to compete for a conference championship. The good news is there are some promising pieces. Junior Tanner Crum is rock-solid at center. The coaching staff really likes redshirt freshman Jake Notario at right guard, where he plays with a nasty disposition. Oklahoma transfer Victor Craven, who started the last four games at right tackle in 2012, is improving. The left side of the offensive line was beset with injuries to returning starters LG Nate Haremza and LT Ethan Wirth during the spring, and that hindered the offense. Wirth transferred from Toledo right before the 2012 season and wound up starting nine games. He’s bulked up to 300 pounds during the off-season and his return to health in the fall is critical. Depth is a concern.

3. SIU has some potent weapons in its wide receiving corps. Junior speedster LaSteven McKinney caught 43 passes last year and had an excellent spring. He’s becoming more than just a slot receiver and is now a player who can vertically stretch the defense. Senior John Lantz is a reliable possession receiver with 52 career catches. Shawn Mitchell played as a true freshman last season but made little impact. That should change in 2013 after the speedy wideout made good strides during the spring. Third-year sophomore Josh Sullivan made some big plays in practice and could be in the mix. Redshirt freshman Billy Reed was one of the most consistent receivers in the spring. The coaches chart every pass and he rarely committed a drop.

4. Coordinator Kalen DeBoer finally has the weapons at tight end for his 12 personnel offense (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR). All-American MyCole Pruitt is one of the best players in the country at the FCS level and should lead the team in receiving.  Look for SIU to line Pruitt up in the slot and move him around so teams can’t key on him. Adam Fuehne made some brilliant catches during the spring, and at 6-foot-7, is a nightmare matchup for most defenders. The coaches thought they were in a similar position last year in terms of tight end depth before Fuehne broke his hand. The Salukis need Dalton Morgan to get healthy and provide depth.

5. The Salukis will go only so far as quarterback Kory Faulkner can lead them. The fifth-year senior is 8-10 in his career as a starter and will turn 23-years-old in August. Faulkner is a big, athletic kid who can make all the necessary throws. The coaches want him to manage the offense and get the ball to their playmakers. I think he is more than capable. No quarterback on the team reads defenses as quickly as Faulkner. When he has time to throw, he usually delivers the ball on target. Faulkner had a knee injury last summer, and I believe that affected his mechanics during the 2012 season. He never looked completely comfortable moving around in the pocket. He seemed more mobile and confident about the knee this spring. Faulkner made some excellent throws in the spring game, but he also threw a couple of bad interceptions. If he can eliminate the major mistakes, I think he’s poised to have a big season for SIU. Redshirt freshman Ryan West had a strong spring and really pushed Faulkner. That was good to see. Sophomore Matt Vincent has a lot of physical tools, and he’s a gunslinger, but he must cut down on the interceptions and show more pocket presence. Senior A.J. Hill has the tools to take over the offense, if needed.

6. All three starters graduated on the defensive line, but the way SIU rotates its players, there are three returnees with plenty of experience in Bubba Schweigert’s complex 3-4 system. Sophomore DE Adam Brandt had an excellent spring and looks significantly improved over last season, when he made eight tackles as a reserve. Junior Blake Miller was productive in 2012 with 29 tackles and two sacks, and JUCO transfer Kitray Solomon showed a burst to the quarterback this spring, as the Salukis look for someone to replace the 13.5 sacks generated by ends Eze Obiora and Ken Boatright. The coaches are hoping sophomore TJ Beelen can take over at nose tackle for Kayon Swanson. They also have Raysean Golden, a Coffeyville transfer, who will arrive this summer. He had 27 tackles as a freshman last season and has three years of eligibility remaining.

7. Inside linebacker Bryan Presume led the team in tackles last year and continues to improve. The senior is the cornerstone of the linebacker corps. ILB Jordan Poole had a good spring and there is plenty of depth with players such as Taylon Hunter, Cameron James and Houston Walker, who all have playing experience. Cory Lee started every game at outside linebacker last year and made 36 tackles. Although OLB Tyler Williamson didn’t start, he put up big numbers, including 5.5 tackles for loss. The Salukis always seem to re-load at linebacker, never rebuild, and this year should be no different.

8. Coach Lennon is thrilled with the team’s depth at cornerback. In fact, it’s the best he’s felt about the position since he’s been at Southern. Senior Terrell Wilson missed half of spring ball with an injury, but he’s the team’s top cover man. The Salukis brought in three talented transfers — Toledo’s Keith Suggs and JUCOs Chris Davis and Brandon Willingham. The icing on the cake has been the improvement of returning junior Courtney Richmond, who had a strong spring. Southern is deep at safety with returning starters D.J. Cameron and Luke Thuston, plus tested reserves Anthony Thompson and David Boatright.

9. Senior Austin Pucylowski was booming his punts as usual this spring, but the kicking spot remains a question mark, where Southern had four players in spring ball vying for the jobs of kickoffs and field goal duty. In addition to returnees Austin Johnson, Chris Adams and Jackson MacLachlan, the Salukis added Thomas Kinney of Winona College. He has a strong leg, gets good lift on his kicks and was pretty consistent until missing a field goal in the spring game.

NFL scouts have noticed Jayson DiManche's pass-rushing ability.

NFL scouts have noticed Jayson DiManche’s pass-rushing ability.

10. Former Saluki OLB Jayson DiManche is anxiously awaiting this week’s NFL Draft, which begins Thursday. I spoke to him today and he expects to be either a Day 3 pick or priority free agent. He ran a 4.53 in the 40 at Northwestern’s Pro Day on March 5, which is a superb number for a 230-pound athlete. He also long-jumped 11 feet and bench pressed 225 pounds 24 times. His tape speaks for itself, as he led the team with 8.0 sacks and 15.0 tackles for loss. Last Wednesday, one pro team flew him in for a visit, and three other teams have put him through private workouts. Some teams like him as a strong-side 4-3 OLB lining up over the tight end, while some 3-4 teams think he could play either inside or outside at the pro level. I also talked to draft-eligible seniors Ken Boatright and Eze Obiora, who expect to sign free agent contracts. Boatright ran a 4.77 in the 40 at Northwestern and had a 4.27 short shuttle. He weighs 255 pounds and projects to either a 4-3 DE or OLB. He’s had several private workouts. Obiora ran a 4.84 in the 40 at SIU’s pro day at 244 pounds. One team held a private workout and several others have called.

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