Defense gives offense fits during camp

By Gus Bode

Talented defensive line anchors siu ‘d’

Junior quarterback Joel Sambursky has completed three Saluki football training camps, all of which have been mentally and physically grinding.

There was the first in 2001 when Sambursky, a redshirt, was away from home for the first time, all the while digesting a thick new playbook.


The following year met more challenges as Sambursky was thrown in to the starting quarterback battle just one year into his eligibility. Then there was last season when he faced the high expectations of a second-year starter with a budding team behind him.

And now, with the No. 2 ranked team in the nation and offensive weapons everywhere he looks, one would think this whole training camp thing should be pretty easy by the fourth time around.

But, as Sambursky will attest, it isn’t – and it has everything to do with the Saluki defense.

“The weather’s been great and everything like that, but it’s been a very challenging camp playing quarterback; the defense does so many different things,” Sambursky said. “It’s really hard – really hard – to figure out where the weaknesses are. It has probably been my most mentally challenging camp, and that’s with me having an idea of what our offense is.”

Sambursky and a talented backfield featuring Division I transfers Brandon Jacobs and Terry Jackson II would give any casual fan reason to assume the offense has been a step ahead the first few weeks of practice. After all, the offense has been the focal point of the 2004 season.

The media guide hails SIU and its touted running backs – Terry Jackson, a senior from Minnesota, Jacobs, a senior from Auburn, Arkee Whitlock and Antione Jackson – as Tailback U. And at the annual media day in St. Louis, despite five Salukis being named to the all-defensive team, many of the questions from Gateway beat writers involved the hyped Division I transfer running backs.

The offense has shown flashes, with the Salukis’ last scrimmage featuring its share of exciting plays, but it’s the defense it faces everyday that has the upper hand through the first two weeks of camp.


“There’s no question they’re ahead of the offense, and they are ahead of most offenses in the country right now,” Kill said. “Hopefully they will do that during the season. I expect our defense to be very good.”

A case in point is a drill last week in which the offense attempted to complete a fourth-and-short situation from midfield. Over and over, the defense stuffed the play, causing one of the coaches to scream from the field, “We can’t get three yards?”

The offense responded with Jacobs breaking a lengthy run after a nice cutback, and again with an impressive burst up the middle by Antione Jackson. But for the most part, the defense had the upper hand in that particular drill.

According to Kill, that’s the only way he wants it.

“The Pistons didn’t win [the NBA championship] because they were great jump shooters. They won because they play great defense,” Kill said. “You can’t win unless you play defense. So I feel good about that, and offensively we’ll be fine.”

Senior All-American safety Alexis Moreland’s explanation for the defense’s impressive camp is simple – it is a team effort.

“Our coaches plan a good system; it’s a team concept on defense. Everybody does their assignment. Everybody gets to the ball,” Moreland said. “We have a lot of skill on our team, especially on defense. So we just hustle to the ball on every play. If a play is broken, we usually can just get over there and stop it for short yardage.”

For Sambursky, the most impressive part of the defense is its overall speed. For Kill and Terry Jackson, it is the combination of power, explosiveness and depth on the defensive line.

Anchored by all-conference picks Linton Brown and Billy Beard, the defensive line has seen a number of players show they deserve time on the field.

“I feel like right now, if they keep focused and do what they’re supposed to do, defensive line-wise we can be as good as anybody in the country,” Kill said. “We’ve got nine of them, and they all look good, they’re fast and strong. That’s the strength of our football team is our defensive line, and you win games with the people up front.”

Terry Jackson has faced many of the nation’s toughest defenses playing running back in the Big Ten his first three years of eligibility. With that said, the Saluki defensive line has left quite an impression on the former Golden Gopher.

“What I like the most about them is that they all play hard and they all run. It’s unbelievable to see big guys moving the way they move,” Terry Jackson said. “I haven’t played in this conference yet, but if our defensive line is any indication of what we’ll face, then it’s going to be tough. But from my understanding, we have the best D-line.”

The defense has been great, no question, but the offense is not in bad shape. Sambursky, although he has been frustrated at times, finds comfort in Kill’s assertion that no other defense in the nation can match the Salukis’ flexibility.

Moreland has seen improvement in the offense’s play as camp has wore on, as has Sambursky. And for good measure, Kill has the utmost confidence in his offense.

“We’ve always found ways to score points, there’s no question about that, and we’ve got some talent,” Kill said. “We’ve just got to get our chemistry together, and as long as we have Joel Sambursky, we’ll be pretty good.”