Starting process

By Gus Bode

While the Saluki football team lost numerous starters from 2006 on both sides of the ball, head coach Jerry Kill remains adamant that no player is entirely safe as a starter.

“If you don’t perform, you don’t play,” Kill said. “You can be a fifth-year senior – you don’t do a good job, you’re not going to play.”

The philosophy gives Kill the responsibility of filling starting jobs and finding depth among a laundry list of former back-ups and emerging young talent.


The talent may get an opportunity to set themselves above the pack when the Salukis prepare for their regular season opener against the Quincy Hawks, an NAIA team.

When SIU held its home opener against Union (Ky.), another NAIA team, ten players received rushing opportunities in an 82-7 victory, which allowed Kill to play many of his back-ups.

Kill said a starting lineup will be set five or six days before his gameplan for the Aug. 30 opener against Quincy is finalized. As expected, Kill said the Salukis will play a lot of players early on in the season.

“We’ve always played a lot of players early in the year and I think that’s why we’ve been a strong football team towards the end,” Kill said.

Here is a list of key position battles as the Salukis set to enter the 2007 season:


The Salukis seem set to platoon a three-man rotation at the two safety positions, which is viable considering safeties coach Jay Sawyel said free safety and strong safety are pretty much interchangeable.


Junior Clayton Johnson should start one safety spot while sophomore Marty Rodgers should start the other. Junior Derrick Belton would then be called on to relieve Johnson and Rodgers, Sawyel said.

“The way we approach it is, if you’re a guy who is in that top three, you’re a starter for us anyway, regardless of what else,” Sawvel said.

Johnson and Belton were both moved from cornerback to safety before the start of last season, Sawvel said, and Johnson picked up the position quicker than Belton.

Johnson had a team-high two interceptions last season, playing in all 13 games and starting in seven.

Junior Kenny Walker, a junior college transfer who arrived for August’s training camp, could be a fourth wheel in the safety rotation, Sawvel said.

Walker has stepped in for sophomore Lance Caldwell, who is out with a meniscus tear in his knee, Sawvel said. Caldwell is out indefinitely after having surgery.

Tight End:

Braden Jones – the Salukis’ leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns last season – was signed by the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free agent leaving a serious void to be filled.

Three players expected to compete for Jones’ starting slot should be sophomores Ryan Kernes and Byron Gettis and freshman Kyle Harruff.

Kernes, the probable starter, said all three would receive playing time during the season.

“We’re not as athletic as (Jones) is, but the only thing we can do as a group is we’re going to play hard and we’re going to play smart, and we’re going to work with one another,” Kernes said. “We’re going to rotate more and we’re going to try to be the toughest group on the field as a whole, and there’s no way we can fill his shoes.”


A battle for the starting cornerback spot opposite from Craig Turner is still ongoing. Sophomore Brandon Williams and senior Anthony Williams will fight for the starting spot that was previously manned by Brandon Bruner.


With fullback J.T. Wise having used up his eligibility, sophomore Rick Burgess has emerged as a likely starter.

Defensive Tackle:

At defensive tackle, seniors Andre Tillman, a returning starter from last season, and Larry Luster are likely to start. Kill said he was pleased with what he has seen from both in training camp.

“We’re pretty good up front in the offensive line, and those guys have hung in there very good during camp,” Kill said. “I think that whole unit is better than it was a year ago, and I think our football team is better than it was a year ago at this time.”


With All-American Will Justice gone due to graduation, junior Mike Farrell’s strong spring and training camp allowed him to seize the starting spot at center.

Sophomore center Mike Nitti, a medical redshirt last season after being diagnosed with a heart condition that was eventually overturned, said he’s back at the level where he was before last season.

“Farrell’s had a great camp. He’s doing extremely well, so he’ll probably end up being the starter and I’ll back him up and help him along with anything I can,” Nitti said.

Daily Egyptian writer Scott Mieszala can be reached at 536-3311 ext. 256 or [email protected].