Imagine: It’s 2008, and Dale Lennon is just settling in to his new role as Saluki football coach after former coach Jerry Kill bolted for Northern Illinois University. With only a few weeks until signing day, Lennon and his staff are scrambling to put together a recruiting class.
As Lennon recalls it:
“Our first recruiting weekend was January 16th (2008). We basically had less than three weeks until signing day. We were just trying to get recruits. Who’s left, who’s available, just calling as many resources that we had.”
With little time to spare, Lennon decides to take a chance on a local boy. He’s a bit thin, but he’s got a cannon of an arm, and being from Marion, will surely put people in the seats.
The young player is asked to redshirt, like the majority of the members of his class (Kill left behind a treasure trove of talent. And besides, the Salukis already have a very talented quarterback in Chris Dieker). The Salukis march through a successful season in Lennon’s first year and finish 9-3 and making the playoffs.
In 2009, SIU has title hopes in mind and starts off the year 6-1. Then, in a matchup with Youngstown State Oct. 24, Dieker breaks his collarbone. Lennon calls on the local boy to step in. Using a run-first offense that stretches the field with the play-action, the redshirt freshman performs admirably, and the Salukis win the game.
In fact, SIU makes it to the NCAA playoff quarterfinals without losing again.
On a cool Dec. 5 day at McAndrew Stadium — the last game to be played at the age-old field — Saluki star running back Deji Karim is bottled up by a tough William and Mary rushing defense. Instead of running Karim ragged for 27 yards on 12 carries, the Salukis elect to throw the ball a little bit and open the playbook. The young quarterback helps SIU nose out a win.
Lennon has found his starter.
In the years that follow into this season, the local quarterback continues to excel and has been named to Missouri Valley Football All-Conference teams and racked up statistics. The Salukis are able to pass the ball. The added dimension to the game plan opens up lanes for the running game, and star running backs such as Jewel Hampton and Mika’il McCall are rarely met by eight-man fronts stacked in the box. The Salukis aren’t worried about missing the playoffs for the third straight year; they are worried about winning a championship.
This “local quarterback” is Illinois State’s Matt Brown. While I have taken the liberty to hypothesize what the SIU football team would look like with Brown on the roster, the facts don’t lie.
According to friends of the Brown family, Brown was recruited by Kill, but the Marion native was forgotten somewhere in the mix between Lennon and Kill.
While Lennon’s first recruiting class has included greats such as linebacker Jayson DiManche and defensive tackle Kayon Swanson, junior Kory Faulkner was forced into the mix at quarterback as a sophomore after Paul McIntosh was hurt last season.
Faulkner has at times been exceptional this season. In those times, Lennon credits the quarterback’s success to a growing confidence in the playbook. In what would be his fifth year, Brown’s confidence in the offense would have been established years ago.
The numbers don’t lie, either.
Brown has rewritten the Redbirds’ record book, including career marks for completions and touchdowns. His 273.2 yards per game and 11 touchdowns lead the conference and offer a stark change from the Saluki passing game that has ranked fourth and seventh the past two seasons, respectively.
He also has Illinois State off to its best start since 1967, at 5-0.
Saluki Stadium’s stands held a pretty full crowd Saturday for the start of the Salukis’ bout with Indiana State. But as the game wore on and the Saluki offense stumbled, punted and turned the ball over, those stands began to empty. By the time the final horn sounded in the 24-3 defeat, very few were left.
Faulkner had three interceptions in the contest. To compare, Brown has thrown three all season.
Maybe the Salukis should have taken a chance on Brown. At least there would be more people in the seats.
Members of the Brown family declined to comment for the story.