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

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Confidence and communication on defense anchors Saluki football

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Lylee Gibbs
PJ Jules (4) yells in celebration moments after he takes down Murray State on defense Oct. 14, 2023 at Roy Stewart Stadium in Murray, Kentucky.

Antonio James was promoted to defensive coordinator the day before training camp after a sudden resignation from D.J. Vokolek. But head coach Nick Hill was adamant in his belief that James would fit seamlessly in the role.

In Hill’s eyes, James has been great leading the defense and is deserving of some hardware come season’s end.

“I think we have a championship caliber defense,” Hill said. “…I think coach James needs just a ton of credit along with the rest of the staff…I know they give an assistant of the year out but he’s well deserving of that.”

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James’ impact is felt throughout the locker room, and it is a collective agreement that he has brought the team closer. Senior defensive tackle Kam Bowdry, who is in his third season with SIU, echoed that sentiment.

“He found a way to bring us together,” Bowdry said. “When I was here, our team was together but like since he’s been the DC [defensive coordinator], we like just hanging out outside of football, watching film together. We truly enjoy being around each other since he’s been our DC…he’s just brought our chemistry up.”

James gives players the chance to be themselves with the confidence he instills in them.

Cornerback D.J. Johnson said, “We love how he coaches and he’s a player’s coach and he understands us and allows us to play free. So we love coach James and his mentality too that he brings to the defense.”

James and his coaching staff agreed that they wanted to do something different from previous units on their side of the ball.

“I had a lot of trust within the players,” James said. “I knew that they were a hard-working group, great young men. I’ve been around them for a year now, so I built relationships with them and the coaches that we work with…They just trusted the system and came in and started working.”

Although SIU players were familiar with James, who spent 2022 as the defensive line coach, it wasn’t perfect to begin with. But as the season has progressed, so has their cohesive play.

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“We started off a little shaky because new coach, new schemes,” safety P.J. Jules said. “But just overall grew together and bonded with each other, allowing us to play faster and together.”

The task of getting players to commit to an entirely new game plan is not an easy one.

“Everybody’s got good schemes and things, it’s about getting your players to buy into it and play extremely hard, play with great technique and fundamentals, and fly around and that’s what our guys have done.” Hill said.

Collectively, the defense has only allowed 16.3 points per game up to this point. That ranks the Salukis third in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. They are also third in the conference in sacks (29) and interceptions (nine).

Their run defense has been the true story, as the Dawgs have only allowed 83.3 yards per game on the ground. They are first in the MVFC in that category and third in the entire Football Championship Subdivision which includes 133 schools from across the nation.

Stopping the run paves the way for shutting down an offense entirely. A struggle to move the ball on the ground forces an offense to be one-dimensional which allows the opposition to put more pressure on them.

“We understand that stopping the run gives us the opportunities to get after the quarterback more, have the interceptions, the sacks, all the statistics that players are wanting to gain,” James said. “But if you let a team run the ball on you, they don’t have to come out of running the ball and now you’re going to be fighting your whole game.

It is common to hear defenses wanting to move around the field quickly and impose on the other team physically. But there must be constant focus by all eleven guys on the defense in order to accomplish it. This includes locking in emotionally and being confident in the scheme and in your teammates on the field.

“Everything we do, it’s about emotional content. It’s about how are you approaching this rep, the mind state that you have when approaching each thing that we’re doing,” James said. “And that’s really been the big thing we focused on, you know, is our technique, our state of mind and what we expect from ourselves, our own standard.”

This expectation isn’t continuously drilled into the players by coaches; the team just has to want it. Players have to hold themselves accountable when that standard isn’t met, but if they buy into the scheme and stay aware of their assignment, they can play freely and quickly.

“When they don’t meet their own standard, they do a great job of calling themselves out at it,” James said. “Now a big thing on playing fast is making sure everybody knows what their job is.”

James has told his defense to play at full speed, which is fun for Bowdry who has seen his game improve over time.

“Just going 100 miles per hour man, just leaving it all on the field…even if we make a mistake, just going fast…can’t be wrong when you going full speed,” Bowdry said. “When I first got here, I kind of just was playing football just to be here and…I’m just more locked in.

Bowdry is one of the guys who stands out up front, with 25 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble on the year. Defensive ends Devin Cowan and Tim Varga have also been forces, racking up four and 3.5 sacks, respectively. Linebacker Zach Burrola has brought the quarterback down three times while also accumulating seven tackles for loss.

The defense has also been great with a shortened field behind them. When opponents do manage to get to the red zone against the Salukis, they haven’t had much success in capitalizing. SIU is tied for third in the MVFC, allowing just an 80% success rate while being tied for the league-best in touchdowns allowed (nine) and interceptions (three) when defending inside the 20.

The linebackers and the defensive line must be connected in order to not allow big plays on the ground and to protect those situations when the offense is closer to the end zone. These front seven in the box on the defense help set the tone for the game by having a confident demeanor achieved through practice and repetition.

“Us having an understanding of linebacker and D-line relationship in the box,” James said. “Our linebackers do a great job of fitting off some of our stuff, where we cut our D-line free and then there’s times we cut our linebackers free, and the D-lines have to hold their gaps.”

This mindset that James mentioned is best described by Johnson as ‘going by Death Row’.

“Just having the mindset of just being gritty, man. Every inch matters…it’s just getting to the ball and playing for your brothers too,” Johnson said. “So we all love each other so we all play for one another and want to do our best at doing our job to help our team.”

Johnson is tied for the team lead in pass breakups and also has picked two passes off. His fellow corner on the other side, Mark Davis Jr., leads the Salukis with three interceptions. Johnson believes his game has improved based on the hours he has put in the film room and improving his technique.

Together, their game tape speaks volumes of how James wants the team to play and is visible to the head coach.

“I feel like we have two of, probably, the most physical corners I’ve seen on film this season,” Hill said. “I would take them every day.”

Jules is another dynamic player in the secondary. Even though he is listed as a safety, his fingerprints are all over the stat sheet. Fellow safeties Ubayd Steed, Iverson Brown and Desman Hearns are also big contributors on the backend for the Saluki defense, but Jules leads the team in multiple categories.

He is first by far in tackles (80) and tackles for loss (10), and is tied for the team lead in pass breakups (eight) and quarterback hits (three).

Jules can move into the nickel as a coverage corner, rush the passer and even help stop the run. His versatility can’t be overstated, but he has a simple definition for what he does on the gridiron.

“I’m really just a football player, just overall, a good football player,” Jules said.

Hill said, “I think [he] is as good as anybody at the position that he plays.”

Even though he is the head coach, Hill also serves as the offensive play caller. It eases his job to know he has a defense that can shut down the opposing team, as his calls from the sideline can adjust based on the defense’s execution.

“There’s times that you’ll call [offense] a little bit differently. It just depends on how you feel like your offense is performing…” Hill said.

The offense has averaged 25.3 points a game which places them in seventh in the Valley.  Knowing the elite defense they have, the offense wants to improve each time out so the team can play complete football consistently on both sides of the ball.

“The exciting part is we’ve got opportunity to get better. And we’ve got games and opportunities to do that and we’re capable of doing that and that’s what we’ll continue to work to do,” Hill said.

Over the past few weeks, the Salukis have limited highly-ranked teams to some of their lowest-production games of the year. In October, they kept the No. 1 South Dakota State Jackrabbits to just 17 points and 308 yards, both season-lows for the reigning FCS National Champions.

Then, two weeks later, Southern held the No. 9 South Dakota Coyotes to just 14 points and fewer than 200 yards offensively. The only opponents to best those marks against the Coyotes were the aforementioned Jackrabbits, and the Missouri Tigers, who are one of the top FBS teams this year.

However, the Salukis were on the losing end of both games. Along with offensive struggles, the team has not generated as many turnovers as it had in prior weeks, with just one combined in their two most recent losses. That will be a point of emphasis as the postseason approaches.

“You know, we kind of tapered off on our takeaways last couple of weeks, we need to get those back up high, try to get three or more in a game, pressure on the quarterback,” James said. “I mean, I think we can get better in every statistical category at this point still.”

Communication is another vital, vastly improved concept for SIU that is significant in stopping an offense.

“It’s high. Every motion, every play…we talk out there, help each other out when we’re on the field,” Jules said.

They’re playing for each other and continue this communication even in a boisterous Saluki Stadium.

“Even when we got a packed crowd, man, it’s like even from the sideline, you can hear us talking, yelling, giving out calls,” Bowdry said. “When we make a play, we’re all happy for each other just yelling and jumping around. We’re just loud out there. We just love to talk to each other and communicate.”

It has helped lead to their success so far and growing together as teammates and brothers between the white lines.

“We’re a real close-knit group. So we’re always talking and communicating the whole game and it can be just small things. And sometimes just looking at your brother and understanding what can come,” Johnson said. “I love that we’re a close group and we all feel comfortable with each other so it’s easier for us to communicate and talk at all times.”

Sports reporter Howard Woodard can be reached at [email protected]. To stay up to date on all your Southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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