Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

Serving the Southern Illinois University community since 1916.

The Daily Egyptian

“Iron sharpens iron:” Saluki Footballers testing themselves ahead of season opener vs Austin Peay

Lylee Gibbs

On October 22, 2022, the No. 14 ranked Salukis (5-2) traveled to Vermillion, South Dakota, for a road game against conference foe South Dakota Coyotes with their 4-0 record in the Missouri Valley Conference on the line. Towards the tail end of the third quarter, the Dawgs held a 24-17 lead as the clock ticked into the fourth quarter.

From that game on, the Salukis would let four separate fourth-quarter leads evaporate in the coming weeks as their record would fall to 5-6 (4-4 in the MVC) and in the end, lose their seemingly firm grasp on a playoff spot. It was the first time since 2019 that the Salukis would not be participating in playoff football.

In just a few short days, Saluki Stadium will once more be packed with loads of students, families and fans alike; eager for one more chapter in Southern Illinois football, with playoff aspirations once again on the minds of Saluki fans and players.


“Days like next Saturday are what you do it for. To come out here and enjoy the work that you put in it,” head coach Nick Hill said, “You only get eleven guaranteed opportunities out of 365 days, so we should play with a passion and an energy that reflects that.”

As the 2023 Salukis enter their 110th season in school history, many things remain a constant. Coach Hill enters his seventh season at the helm of the Dawgs. Alongside, is longtime quarterback Nic Baker entering his third season as the starter, with this being his sixth and final year of eligibility.

Offensively, the Dawgs are returning seven of their 11 starters from last season, with wide receiver Avante Cox and All-American fullback Jacob Garrett being the most notable position players absent from the 2023 Saluki offense. Stars like running back Justin Strong and wide receiver Izaiah Hartrup returned to training camp this summer fully healthy and ready to go after sustaining injuries last season.

Their injuries left the door open for other players to take advantage. Fifth-year running back Ro Elliot posted the second-highest carrying total of his career last season (91) and almost doubled his career high in receptions, with 22. Elliot also contributed in the special teams game too, with his first four kick returns last year.

As a fifth-year player now, Elliot will be one of the 32 players in their fifth or sixth year in college football.

“I kinda thrusted myself into the veteran role with just my play on the field. Since day one, when I came in, as a freshman, coach Hill told me I was gonna be playing behind DJ [Davis] and Javon [Williams Jr.],” Elliot said. “That was a great experience, but once they left, I just had to take the torch over. I got great help from Justin Strong, Jalen Medefield and Lashaun Lester, so I accept that role.”

This year Elliot and the other running backs will have a brand new RB coach for the first time since 2016, as previous coach Nate Griffin moved into the tight end room as their coach. This year, it’s Larry “Lightning” Warner leading the running back room.


“Coach Griffin, he was more laid back, but coach Warner, he brings the energy and it just tells us we have to show out. We have a saying in our room: ‘Be Dawgs’ and, I just feel like that’s what we live by and that’s why we work hard,” Elliot said.

At the end of the day, Hill expects all his players to buy into the leadership mentality at the same time as keeping themselves humble.

“When you have a culture where you don’t have just two or three leaders, everybody on this team is gonna be called to lead at some point and they’re gonna be called on to follow at some point,” Hill said. “I think it’s super important that those guys also show that they can follow, they can be coached, they can listen to another team, and they can take constructive criticism.”

Defensively, only five of the 11 starters from last year’s week one will be returning, with most notably Richie Hagarty and Keenan Agnew leaving. Just like the injuries on offense last year, the openness of the defense leads to more opportunities for other players on this year’s team.

Fifth-year safety and senior PJ Jules was a highlight of the secondary last year, yet only started in two games. Jules managed to lead the team in tackles (66) and pass-breakups (7), while posting career highs in sacks (2.5) and tackles for losses (4) on his way to his first MVC Second Team All-Conference.

Just like Elliot, Jules knows jumping into that veteran role will be just as important to the team’s success as his skills on the field.

“It’s an everyday process of iron sharpens iron. So every day, you just pray it helps the guys and I give them the learnings that I have,” Jules said. “I also learn from them. Everybody’s working hard, everybody’s trying to grow at the game. So you just learn from each other and sharpen each other’s tools.”

Jules will be pushed into a spot filled with expectations this season as he was recently put onto the State Perform preseason All-American team as well as the 2024 Senior Bowl watch list. With such high expectations, Jules isn’t letting any of it get to his head.

“I’m grateful for every opportunity I get. It just lets me know that I’m in the right direction, and I’m headed toward the right path. Every day, I’m just working, trying to be a better version of myself on and off the field,” Jules said. “It gets me motivated to keep going and be a hard worker, but I’m not quite there yet, so every day it’s a process of locking in and not letting outside sources dictate how I feel or what I do.”

Jules and all the other defensive players were thrown into a difficult situation when former defensive coordinator DJ Vokolek resigned on Aug. 1, just one day before the start of fall training camp and 6 months to the day of his announced hiring. Vokolek took a defensive assistant coach position at Northwestern just 10 days later. In response, assistant head coach Antonio James took over as the defensive coordinator at the start of training camp.

It’s an unusual situation for certain, but players like Jules aren’t taking anything personal from it.

“At the end of the day it’s a business and you gotta do what’s best for you,” Jules said. “It’s just more adversity that we’ve had to face and overcome. Every piece of adversity that comes is just a test of how strong you are. We use that as a motivator to be the best version of ourselves.”

As for the season opener, Hill has had the players preparing for the opening weeks far in advance. However, Hill believes the biggest factor to start the season comes from within.

“I think the biggest thing in the first game is that it’s really about us. It’s about what we do. Not so much about what they do,” Hill said. “We’ll get a good idea in the first few series on what their game plan is against us, what front structure they’re going to kind of live and die in. You feel like you have a good idea going in, but there’s always going to be some new wrinkles.”

The first game will be everyone’s first opportunity to see what to expect from the Dawgs in the 2023 season, and the players know they need to capitalize on it.

“We’re always gonna fight. We’re never gonna take a game off, we always play four quarters and we always wanna be the most physical,” Elliot said.

The Salukis will begin their 2023 journey on Saturday, Sept. 2, with a 6:00 p.m. kickoff. The theme is Faith and Family Night. The game will also be broadcast on ESPN+.

Graduate Assistant Joseph Bernard can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @Jojobernard2001. To stay up to date on all your Southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.


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