Daily Egyptian

SIU football hopes to see brighter days thanks to Sunshine State

Saluki football players celebrate on the sidelines after their 38-31 overtime victory against Youngstown State University at the homecoming game Oct. 24, 2015, at Saluki Stadium. (Jacob Wiegand | @jawiegandphoto)

Saluki football players celebrate on the sidelines after their 38-31 overtime victory against Youngstown State University at the homecoming game Oct. 24, 2015, at Saluki Stadium. (Jacob Wiegand | @jawiegandphoto)

By Ted Ward

A quick glance at the SIU football roster will show more than a dozen Floridians.

Thirteen players on the team came to SIU from the football hotbed that has produced a plethora of pro talent.

While nearly half of the squad is from Illinois, Coach Nick Hill said he recruits from the Sunshine State because past relationships help him find the right players there.

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“I’ve coached high school football down in Florida, [SIU offensive coordinator John] Van Dam was on the University of Florida staff last season and of course we had players on the team from last year from the area,” Hill said. “The thing about Florida is high school football is huge whereas you think of areas like Chicago, you think basketball.”

(DailyEgyptian.com file photo of SIU football Coach Nick Hill)

SIU football Coach Nick Hill. (DailyEgyptian.com file photo)

Last year, seven SIU players were from Florida. This season, that number has nearly doubled.

“It’s really cool to look across the field and see so many familiar faces from your high school days,” sophomore outside linebacker Withney Simon said. “Some of them were teammates and others I played against but we’re all here trying to build a team and win games.”

One of those familiar faces is sophomore cornerback C.J. Jennings, who transferred in from the University of Wyoming. Jennings was a senior when Simon was a junior at Jones High School in Orlando.

Simon said he talked to Jennings about potentially coming to SIU when Jennings planned on transferring out of Wyoming.

“I just told him what big things were happening at SIU and how coach Hill and the rest of the coaching staff were building relationships with the players,” Simon said. “As a player you have to have a good relationship with your coaches and you have to feel like a part of the family and he didn’t feel like he had that.”

Junior outside linebacker Deondre Barnett, of Florida, makes a tackle Sept. 13, 2015, during the Saluki's 27-24 loss to Southeast Missouri State. (DailyEgyptian.com file photo)

Junior outside linebacker Deondre Barnett, of Florida, makes a tackle Sept. 13, 2015, during the Saluki’s 27-24 loss to Southeast Missouri State. (DailyEgyptian.com file photo)

SIU isn’t the only program recruiting from Florida.

The squad competes with Florida, Miami and Florida State — national championship caliber — but Van Dam knows a thing or two about recruiting the region.

The new coordinator’s resume includes coaching jobs under top college football coaches, including Alabama head coach Nick Saban.

MORE: Once an opponent, new SIU coach becomes ally on sideline

While the competition is steep, SIU has a slight advantage, Van Dam said.

“The hard part for the bigger schools is they have to recruit so early and the luxury we have is we can wait a little bit,” he said. “When the players mature into good players by their senior year the bigger schools can’t take them because they don’t have room, so we can give these guys the opportunity to go play and be successful.”

While Southern Illinois may be a stark contrast to Florida, Hill said the drive to play is more than enough to leave the Sunshine State.

“In Florida everyone wants to play football and they don’t care about the weather,” Hill said. “[Southern Illinois] is a climate change but these guys just love to play and be in between the lines.”

Simon said the game of football is the same everywhere you go, but the game in Florida is a bit faster.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Hearn, of Florida, runs with the ball April 8 during’ second scrimmage game of the season at Saluki Stadium. (DailyEgyptian.com file photo)

Redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Hearn, of Florida, runs with the ball April 8 during the second scrimmage game of the season at Saluki Stadium. (DailyEgyptian.com file photo)

He said bringing that speed to the Midwest and combining that with the Midwestern style of play has really started something special.

“When you take what those guys know and you take the style we’ve brought in it’s definitely created a new culture and it’s one that’s been really fun to be around,” Simon said. “It makes you feel at home and we really are one big family no matter where you’re from.”

The Floridian Salukis will get a homecoming of sorts as they will open their season against Florida Atlantic at 5 p.m. Sept. 3 in Boca Raton, Fla.

Staff writer Ted Ward can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @TedWard_DE.

To stay up to date with all your SIU news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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