Passion to the ends

By Gus Bode

When it comes down to the closing moments of games, the SIU football team’s defense has relied heavily on its ends.

Self-dubbed as the “Hustle Squad,” a rotating group of six relatively undersized defensive ends have combined to wear out opposing quarterbacks, offensive linemen and anyone else looking to get off a score in the fourth quarter especially.

The defensive ends’ pass-rushing potential should be vital to the team’s success against its quarterfinal opponent Massachusetts Saturday. Minutemen quarterback Liam Coen has had his way through the air, completing 64.2 percent of his passes for 222.5 yards per game this season.


The two starters at the position for most of the season, senior Devon Reese and junior James Cloud, boast a combined 10.5 sacks for a loss of 81 total yards.

When not in the grill of the opposing quarterback, the two are often seen getting in the faces of teammates and encouraging aggressive play late in games.

Reese often tells the team, “This is our time,” or, “This is our quarter.” Cloud clenches his fists as he pounds teammates’ shoulders and hands.

Cloud said he sees it as his job to bring energy to the defense.

“I just want everybody to play up to the level that I’m going to play at. During the playoffs, I’m going to step my game up, and I just want everybody on the team to play that way,” Cloud said. “Every time somebody doesn’t do their job or make an assignment, I feel like it’s my job to tell them that, and that’s what gets them going.”

Listed at 215 and 235 pounds, respectively, Cloud and Reese are at a slight disadvantage weight-wise when going up against 300-plus pound blockers, but Reese said they use that to their advantage, and it benefits the entire defense by providing an energy lift late in games.

“We want to have the offensive tackles tired in the fourth quarter, and we want to be full-go,” Reese said.


He said this is possible with the depth the team has at the position, with junior Kendrick Young, sophomore Jemere Gainer and freshman Jason Seaman contributing heavily.

Reese said it also comes down to the willingness of teammates, who he said are one of the closest units off the field, to tap out when they are hurt or winded.

“We all got confidence in each other, so if somebody gets tired, we’re going to get them out of there and get somebody else in there and rule them like that,” Reese said.

Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said the group is close because so many of them get time on the field, and their emotional play can be encouraging to the defense.

“They jump around and have fun. They’ve got juice on game day,” Claeys said. “That’s always fun to have, the more energy you can bring, especially when times get tough.”

Claeys said the team recruits for speed at the defensive end position for pass rushing, an important element when the throwing game becomes more vital in the playoffs.

He said pass rushers’ ability to change direction to evade blockers has helped the team in putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but the players also must have the strength to combat the blockers.

“You try to make an elephant block a mouse in space,” Claeys said. “We’re smaller and quicker, but if you get close to him and let him grab a hold of you, we’re going to be in for a long day, even on the running game.”

Reese said the coaches recognize advantages over larger blockers late in the game, which leads to more twisting moves to gain an advantage in the pass rush.

Cloud said he embraces his role as a pass rusher, especially when he can put a mark on the quarterback late in the game.

“I’m thinking about knocking him out,” Cloud said. “Doing whatever I can to knock him out. That’s it.”

Sean McGahan can be reached at 536-3311 ext. 269 or [email protected].