Saluki football has sights set on a National Championship
September 2, 2022
Nick Hill transferred to Southern Illinois University in 2004 to play football under head coach Jerry Kill. At the time of Hill’s graduation four years later, the Salukis were in the midst of a stretch that would eventually reach seven consecutive playoff seasons.
Nearly two decades after Hill first came to Carbondale, he is at the helm of his alma mater’s quest for another run to the top. Entering his seventh season as head coach of Saluki football, Hill has accumulated a record of 21-14 across three winning seasons since 2019, including two consecutive playoff berths, the first since their seven-year streak ended in 2009.
“These seniors, the guys that came here in 2019, they’ve never had a losing season and now they’re in their fourth year,” Hill said. “That trickles down to the younger guys, when they see how it’s supposed to be done.”
Of the five FCS teams to win a playoff game in both spring and fall 2021, SIU was the only one to win road games in both years. This year, however, SIU intends on earning the right to host its own playoff game.
“Obviously we want to win the conference, then we want to go and win a home playoff game, go to the national championship and win the national championship,” junior quarterback Nic Baker said.
A national championship is a lofty expectation, especially with SIU sharing a conference with reigning champions North Dakota State, which ranks No. 1 on the FCS Top 25 rankings, as well as South Dakota State and Missouri State, which rank No. 2 and 5 respectively. Southern Illinois occupies the ninth spot on that list heading into the new year.
But if any team is prepared to take on that challenge, it is the team that beat North Dakota State when it came to Carbondale in spring 2021, and took down South Dakota State in overtime in the fall of that year.
“We take every game seriously, because as you saw last year, anybody can win any game,” Baker said. “We want those expectations. Why else would you want to come here and play?”
Southern Illinois won the 1983 FCS National Championship (then called Division I-AA). That season saw the Salukis finish 13-1, cruising their way to the title as the top seed in the country. Although, to most players and many fans, that may seem like a distant memory, this year’s Salukis have their sights set on that same result.
“There’s nothing that shows us that we can’t do it. The only people that can beat us is, ourselves,” senior linebacker Ma’kel Calhoun said. “We’re chasing that ring. We definitely want to get on that wall: 2022 Salukis, National Champions.”
While SIU has plenty of recent success to build upon, the nature of college football enforces a near constant roster turnover from year to year. COVID-19 created a one-time exception for players to stick around an extra year, but many key contributors, including All-MVFC players Qua Brown, Anthony Knighton and Bryce Notree, saw their Saluki playing careers come to a close in 2021.
To replace lost production, Southern Illinois has seen an influx of transfers. Calhoun recognized some of his fellow linebackers – Nick Okeke from Louisville, Chris Harris Jr. from Georgia Southern, and George Douglas IV from Central Michigan – as transfers who have taken well to their new team.
“Those three guys, they play a huge role as far as defense and special teams, and they bring a lot of energy as well. That is a bonus to our team,” Calhoun said.
Hill added that, with starters graduating from last year’s team, younger players will have an opportunity to leave their own mark on Saluki football.
“A lot of those older guys that had a voice on this team are gone. That’s the exciting part about college football. Every year you’re gonna have classes that can’t come back, they’re out of eligibility,” Hill said. “That just gives the excitement of new people getting an opportunity. New people get to make a name for themselves.”
A notable difference for this upcoming season is something that is relatively familiar under normal circumstances. Since the 2020 campaign was delayed until the following spring, followed shortly after by the fall 2021 season, this year will be the first in which teams will have the entire offseason to rest and prepare for the season.
The presence of a normal offseason may not seem like a significant change, but considering the circumstances surrounding most of the players’ collegiate careers thus far, it’s a welcome return to normalcy.
“Having a real offseason definitely was different. I feel like I haven’t had one in a couple years,” Baker said. “It was huge, getting a whole spring ball in, getting the new guys in there and getting them acquainted with what we do. I think it’s been huge leadership-wise, and just team-wise getting everybody together.”
Baker’s most recent “normal” offseason as a full-time starting quarterback was back in his days at Rochester High School, where he led his team to the IHSA Class 4A state championship in 2017. During his transition to taking that role for Southern Illinois, Baker has felt himself coming into his own not only on the field, but in the locker room as well.
“It comes with the position,” Baker said. “But definitely getting older, becoming the number one, you’ve gotta take a step up. I’ve felt myself step up after starting for a year. You just have to. I feel myself talking more, being more vocal. You notice more people listening to you.”
Baker was named as an All-MVFC Honorable Mention in 2021, joining teammates WR Avante Cox and DB P.J. Jules on that list. Running back Javon Williams Jr. earned All-MVFC Second Team honors.
Cox in particular dealt with a lingering shoulder issue that kept him out of three games in 2021, including the final game against North Dakota State in the FCS Playoffs. With time to properly recover, Cox looks to return to form in 2022.
“Getting that spring and getting finally a break feels like it was huge,” Cox said. “Save our legs and our body wasn’t all banged up for this upcoming season. It’s great to be back.”
Recently during practice, Cox suffered a hand injury that will possibly see him miss the season opener. Despite this, both Cox and the coaching staff are confident that he will return early in the year and not miss significant time.
Southern Illinois opens the year on the road, traveling to San Antonio on Sept. 3 to take on Incarnate Word in what will prove to be a tough challenge. UIW comes into the year ranked No. 14 in the country.
“I think all of our guys have been working hard,” Hill said. “Probably the same excitement every team in the country around this time feels. It’s time to go and play somebody different. We’ve practiced against ourselves 18 times, got some more important practices to go, but excited to get down to San Antonio.”
The first game at Saluki Stadium will come on Sept. 10, when SIU defends home field as well as “The Wheel” against rival Southeast Missouri State. The Salukis have won the past two entries in the “War For The Wheel” rivalry, which dates back to 1913 when teams would cross the Mississippi River by boat to get to their annual games.
Riding the momentum of recent success, in addition to the established rivalry, the Salukis expect an electric crowd to be on-hand for their first home game of the season.
“I can see the environment being pretty spectacular, just from us being a winning team for the last couple years, seeing more of a capacity at the football field,” Williams said. “I can see it being a big crowd, and just be out there and go win The Wheel.”
Cox, who has seen three “War For The Wheel” games during his time in Carbondale, hopes his team improves its 2-1 record against SEMO.
“Ever since I’ve been here, it’s been by far the most live and exciting game to play,” Cox said. “I definitely love playing SEMO, they’re a great team.”
In addition to the aforementioned stakes, Hill has further investment in the rivalry through SEMO’s head coach Tom Matukewicz, who was an assistant coach under Kill when Hill played for the Salukis in the mid-2000s. Matukewicz now stands on the sideline opposite Hill during one of the more intense games on the SIU schedule.
“I love that game. I have more respect for Coach Tuke [Matukewicz] than anybody in the country,” Hill said. “He’s a great man, he coached me, so it’s fun to be able to play for such a big game.”
After spring 2021 forced Saluki Stadium to greatly limit capacity, the fall season brought the highest average attendance for the program since 2016. With no sign of letting up, Saluki football can expect that same outpouring of support from Carbondale and the region as a whole.
“We took a year off with the COVID and everything like that. It kinda seemed like the fans dropped off, but as you look around, you can see the fans never left at all,” Calhoun said. “I’m just excited to see everybody come out here and show love, show their support.”
Kickoff for both the Incarnate Word and SEMO games is scheduled for 6 p.m. Both games will air on ESPN+, with the SEMO game also being broadcast on KFVS-TOO.
Staff reporter Brandyn Wilcoxen can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BrandynWilcoxen. To stay up to date with all your southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.