Many fresh faces on the SIU football team have risen to the occasion and helped deliver a 6-3 record on the season thus far. The Salukis were at one point in the season ranked as high as #3 in the nation and have since fallen to #15.
SIU brought in 35 new players for the fall 2021 season, 16 of which were transfers. They stepped up as contributors on all three sides of the ball so far this season.
Recruiting coordinator Nate Griffin said the goal of this recruitment class, as well as every other recruitment class, is to find the holes that have been opened on the team and try to fill them.
“Every year you re-evaluate after the season who is leaving the team and figure out if we have the depth of players to step up and feel good about that position, or if we’re lacking some bodies and need to grab a transfer and bring some experience on the team,” Griffin said. “It’s really about what we needed to replace.”
Griffin’s job is to find players across the nation that are in the transfer portal that fill the team’s needs. Griffin said SIU has many different selling points for players to join the Salukis, but team chemistry has been something players especially gravitate to.
“[Team chemistry] is our biggest selling point,” Griffin said. “Every program has the ability to make themselves look spectacular from the outside looking in. But that’s just the outer layer and everyone has that. It’s what it’s like when you get here and coach Hill does a phenomenal job of establishing that. It’s about the Salukis, contributing, and developing to be the best you can.”
Sixth-year running back transfer from Western Carolina, Donnavan Spencer, has done an excellent job filling a hole in the Saluki running back room. A premier presence in the backfield, Spencer appeared in seven games and tallied 351 rushing yards on 67 attempts with five touchdowns. He currently leads the team in rushing yards, average rush yards per game, and rushing attempts.
Spencer attributed his successes to his preparation off the field, saying experience between himself and other teammates has been valuable to him.
“The preparation has definitely helped me,” Spencer said. “Coming in as an older guy, I know what all this is like, but coming into a new environment with a veteran group like this where we have 16 sixth year seniors like myself, some of those guys took me under their wings to get me accustomed to the Saluki way.”
Griffin, who also happens to be Spencer’s running back coach, said Spencer’s transition has been as smooth as it possibly could have been.
“He came in here right from the start doing everything he could,” Griffin said “With his transition, it’s like he’s been here this whole time to be honest. He’s very easy to get along with and a team player. He’s built relationships with all of our guys and it was pretty seamless for him.”
Spencer may have seemed prepared to handle his transition with the new environment at SIU, but just like anyone else, he had his nerves about coming into a new environment. Luckily, Spencer said some reassurance from older players helped calm his concerns about SIU.
“It was always nerve wracking to come into a new environment,” Spencer said. “But seeing it and talking to some people before coming here, it was great. Coach Hill always said we could talk to former players to ask about the university. They’ll tell you it’s a good place to be and play, but the people around here make this place even more special.”
Western Carolina, Spencer’s old team, didn’t have the success that Spencer has found at SIU. Through these differences in success, Spencer said there’s a different mindset he’s found at SIU from recent years.
“We wanted to win [at Western Carolina}, but these guys here do it not with the aspect of winning a championship, but winning the week, month, and each game that we set our minds to,” Spencer said. “Western Carolina wanted to look a little more into the future, whereas this team we focus on every week to win the game, every practice to win the practice and everyday to win the day”.
Spencer has already had his fair share of clutch moments with the Salukis, with a 40-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter of the ISU game to cut the deficit for the Salukis to17-14. The touchdown proved to be a huge momentum boost in a comeback win against the Redbirds back in late September.
Spencer also had a clutch performance against then #2 ranked South Dakota State. The two touchdown, 103 rushing yard performance was highlighted by a huge 63-yard rushing touchdown early in the fourth quarter to get the Salukis within one score of the Jackrabbits. The Salukis went on to upset the Jackrabbits 42-41 in overtime, and SIU can thank Spencer for keeping them in the game when things looked rough.
Third year freshman defensive end Richie Hagarty has also made his presence felt on the other side of the ball. He’s accumulated 23 tackles, six -and-a half counting for a loss, four-and-a -a-half sacks, six quarterback hits, and a fumble recovery to go with it.
Hagarty is one of three defensive line transfers on the team that have made an impact so far in the pass rush. Hagarty, senior defensive tackle transfer Kevin Glajchen, and sophomore defensive tackle transfer Kameron Bowdry each account for over a third of SIU’s total sacks this season.
Hagarty had a little bit of a different transition process than most players. He actually came to SIU in the middle of the spring 2021 season after having just played a full season with Miami Ohio University in the fall 2020 season, therefore, he was ineligible to play in the spring of 2021. This gave Hagarty over six months of preparation at SIU before his debut with the team this season.
Hagarty said many of the older and more experienced players have been key to his transition over his long wait to play with the Salukis.
“Guys like Bryce Notree, Jordan Berner, Anthony Knighton, the older guys on the defensive line, Keenan Agnew, Raquan Lindsey, all took me in as their own and taught me how the defense works, what the culture is like, and how to be an overall Saluki athlete,” Hagarty said.
They were aware of me being somebody who couldn’t play and they taught me the wits of what this defense is.”
Considering the timing of Hagarty’s transfer to SIU was during some strict COVID-19 guidelines this past spring, his first impressions of SIU were actually on a zoom call with some of the coaches, but despite the circumstances, Hagarty said he could already tell the differences would be night and day from his old college.
“These men were so welcoming and just genuinely good people, not just football coaches,” Hagarty said.
“It was enlightening because I had never been a part of what they had here with the family atmosphere, so being a part of that immediately was a lightbulb in my head to say that this was home and it was for me. It was almost immediate after the first zoom meeting.”
All of Hagarty’s experiences with everyone on the team have developed into a great relationship for both sides. Hagarty said the welcoming environment has evolved their relationship.
“It’s been a process and a blessing to be at SIU and compete at a high level with these guys,” Hagarty said. I’m loving every second of it and I trust the players and the coaches to stay committed to what our goal is: to win the championship.”
Griffin said he hopes that the Saluki way will live on with players like Spencer and Hagarty even after their playing days are over.
“We want these guys to leave here being better, having been a Saluki,” Griffin said. “I hope my players leave here feeling like they’re a better person and more prepared for life and that I have their back regardless. When you do that the outcome on the field will take care of itself because you’re truly playing as a team and it’s about each other”.
Sports reporter Joseph Bernard can be reached at [email protected] or on twitter @Jojobernard2001.
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