SIU football team begins spring practice

By Gus Bode

Joel Sambursky came to SIU in 2001 as a 6-foot-1, 180-pound, wide-eyed quarterback. Wednesday, standing on the McAndrew Stadium track after the first day of spring practice, the returning Gateway Offensive Player of the Year and two-time conference champion was feeling his age.

A freak injury to Sambursky’s right wrist suffered from a fall while working out had him in a stabilizing cast until last week. The injury, which the senior said happened a couple of months ago, also had him inactive pretty much all winter for precautionary measures.

Admittedly, Sambursky was a little off during Wednesday evening’s first spring practice.

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“I was really, really rusty today,” said Sambursky, adding that the injury is nothing that would prevent him from playing if there was a game tomorrow.

There aren’t too many people around anymore to help Sambursky not feel a little old, with classmates Alexis Moreland, Matt Miller, Billy Beard and many more graduated.

There are still four Salukis left from his recruiting class, but it is safe to say he is the elder statesman of this team, something he said he would not take for granted.

In fact, Sambursky said he wants to go out on top. Once again this year, following back-to-back 10-2 seasons and Gateway championships, the Salukis aren’t shying away from big goals for 2005.

The loss of running backs Brandon Jacobs and Terry Jackson, four starters from the offensive line and Moreland, the defensive leader the last three years, won’t be reason for the Salukis to set their sights a little lower.

The goal will be the same as it has always been.

“I remember after the 1-10 [2001] season, our goal was to win the national championship,” Sambursky said.

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Winning a third straight conference championship and finishing the season No. 1 will once again be the ultimate goal, although it has been an elusive aspiration for these Salukis, who have lost in the first round of the Division I-AA playoffs the last two years.

SIU has the weapons, with Sambursky, running backs Arkee Whitlock and Craig Turner, leading receiver Brent Little and the majority of the defense returning from last year.

But all of the speculation can wait until the fall. For middle linebacker Royal Whitaker, spring practice is all about the fundamentals.

“Right now we’re just focusing on learning,” Whitaker said.

Wednesday’s two-hour practice began with about nine stations set up for each of the 75 guys in shorts and helmets to work on individual drills. Quarterbacks and running backs worked on handoffs, defensive backs practiced proper footwork and the offensive linemen worked on firing off and staying low, just to name a few of the units going through drills simultaneously across the entire playing field.

Later the offensive backs went up against the defensive backs in a passing drill, and then the practice began to resemble a walk through the day before a game with the offensive first and second teams scrimmaging half speed against the defense.

Wednesday was the first of four practices allotted per week for the next month. The Salukis will get into full pads Saturday. Head coach Jerry Kill said he liked what he saw Wednesday from his team, a group he said is “kind of a strange mixture.”

“We’re breaking in a new bunch,” Kill said. “We’ve got a young team, but we’ve got an old team. We’ve got good seniors, but in between that, we’re very youthful.”

Besides breaking in the new players, Kill’s goals for the spring are pretty simple:Get better and stay healthy.

“You want to have good contact, good fundamentals, identify two-deep [depth chart], but if you identify it and they are all on the sideline, you are in trouble,” Kill said. “We want to get stuff productively done without people getting injured.”

Reporter Adam Soebbing can be reached at [email protected]

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