With just under two weeks before Saluki football takes on University of Illinois in their anticipated first season game, one highlight to this year’s team is the core of running backs.
Four players; lone returner junior Mika’il McCall and transfers, juniors Ken Malcome, Malcom Agnew and Tay Willis are all competing to be called for the first carry of the season. Head Coach Dale Lennon said although there will be a starter named before the team’s Aug. 3 matchup against the Illini, there will also be a rotation, so all four may get carries.
“It doesn’t matter who starts,” Lennon said. “Don’t put too much into whatever that first carry is because it’s going to be a rotation. There are a lot of ways to get them on the field.”
McCall said it wouldn’t mean that much to him to be named the starter, because he said the biggest thing to him is his amount of playing time.
“Being the starter is all right, but what it all comes down to is playing,” McCall said. “You can start and still not play a lot of minutes or get a lot of carries. I’m just trying to play out here.”
As for all four running backs, McCall said they don’t see it as a competition, and no one will take it to heart if they are not named the starter.
“We’re cool on the field and off the field,” McCall said. “If somebody starts over you, you just play. We’re a brotherhood.”
Lennon said he is impressed with this group of running backs, mainly because each player brings a different style to the table.
“Mika’il McCall is a very power type runner, Kenny (Malcome) is a little more of a mixture of both, Malcom Agnew is very fast and explosive, and Tay Willis is extremely fast,” Lennon said. “They all have their own strengths as a running back and they’re a good compliment to each other.”
Each running back has seen success on the field in their college career, whether it was at SIU or another university.
McCall played in all 11 games last season for the Salukis and started four. He led the team with eight rushing touchdowns and was second on the team with 489 rushing yards.
Prior to transferring to SIU for this upcoming season, Agnew played two seasons at Oregon State and ran for 692 yards and six touchdowns. In his first collegiate game as a true freshman in 2011, Agnew ran for 223 yards and three touchdowns.
Malcome is a transfer from the University of Georgia. Before coming to SIU, Malcome recorded 448 rushing yards and averaged 4.5 yards per carry in his two years with the Bulldogs. As a freshman, Malcome ran for 51 yards on 12 carries in the Outback Bowl against No. 12 Michigan State.
Willis transferred to SIU from Highland Community College in Kansas. In his two seasons prior to SIU, Willis rushed for 906 yards and six touchdowns. Willis was All-Jayhawk Conference honorable mention in 2010 and 2011.
Lennon said other than Willis receiving carries in the backfield, he would also call on Willis to play receiver in the slot position.
In Saturday’s preseason scrimmage, Willis caught a 55-yard screen pass by senior quarterback Kory Faulkner for the team’s first score of the game.
Faulkner said Willis’ big play ability is a big weapon for the offense this season.
“If it’s a one-on-one matchup with Tay Willis, it’s a mismatch in our eyes,” Faulkner said.
Running Backs Coach Phil Meyer said he is looking for speed and toughness out of his starter when the starter is named leading up to the game against Illinois.
“If you got speed, nobody can catch (you), and you have to be tough and take a lot of shots,” Meyer said.
Meyer said he sees each player pushing each other in training camp to be named the starter and get that first carry of the season.
“All four of those guys have taken snaps with the first huddle,” Meyer said. “I think they know it’s a talented group of guys and that they can push each other and they know they are all going to have to play.”