Newly assembled Saluki secondary faces stern challenge

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Newly assembled Saluki secondary faces stern challenge

Wide receiver Darrell James, right, reaches for a pass as cornerback C.J. Jennings attempts to make a block during SIU's fall football scrimmage Saturday at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale. (Ryan Michalesko | @photosbylesko)

Wide receiver Darrell James, right, reaches for a pass as cornerback C.J. Jennings attempts to make a block during SIU's fall football scrimmage Saturday at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale. (Ryan Michalesko | @photosbylesko)

Wide receiver Darrell James, right, reaches for a pass as cornerback C.J. Jennings attempts to make a block during SIU's fall football scrimmage Saturday at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale. (Ryan Michalesko | @photosbylesko)

Wide receiver Darrell James, right, reaches for a pass as cornerback C.J. Jennings attempts to make a block during SIU's fall football scrimmage Saturday at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale. (Ryan Michalesko | @photosbylesko)

By Jacob Gaertner

There will be a lot of new faces in the Saluki secondary when the season kicks off Saturday.

The SIU football team will boast a secondary with five players starting in new spots in 2016.

The Dawgs lost safety Kenny James over the offseason after he was arrested and transferred. James led the team with 46 solo tackles and two interceptions in 2015, returning both interceptions for touchdowns.

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Safeties Anthony Thompson and D.J. Cameron also graduated in 2016, leaving with them a combined 126 tackles and two picks. Between them, the three safeties combined for 246 tackles, 25 percent of the team’s 972 tackles.

“Those are good players that we have to replace,” coach Nick Hill said during a recent interview.

Former safety Anthony Thompson tackles an opposing player during SIU's 35-29 loss to North Dakota State University on Oct. 31, 2015, at Saluki Stadium. (DailyEgyptian.com file photo)

Former safety Anthony Thompson tackles an opposing player during SIU’s 35-29 loss to North Dakota State University on Oct. 31, 2015, at Saluki Stadium. (DailyEgyptian.com file photo)

But defensive coordinator Kraig Paulson said he isn’t concerned about the loss of production in the secondary.

“Bottom line is that wherever the ball is, the person in that spot has to make plays,” he said.

Fortunately for the Dawgs, junior Ryan Neal will return and switch back to safety, the position he played every game at as a true freshman in 2014. Neal had 60 total tackles in 2015, the fifth most on the team.

“I think I’m a better safety,” Neal said with a laugh. “I don’t like to brag, but I like to say I can do it all.”

The Salukis also moved redshirt sophomore Jefferson Vea to play alongside Neal at safety. Vea was the starting cornerback opposite of Neal in 2015 and recorded 48 total tackles.

Junior safety Jefferson Vea breaks up a pass on Oct. 24, 2015 against Youngstown State. (Morgan Timms | @Morgan_Timms)

Junior safety Jefferson Vea breaks up a pass Oct. 24, 2015, during SIU’s matchup against Youngstown State at Saluki Stadium. (Morgan Timms | @Morgan_Timms)

Hill expects Neal to have his best year this season, saying he fits really well as a safety.

“I don’t really care about having a lot of tackles,” Neal said. “It doesn’t really matter to me as long as we win a lot of games.”

Neal said the defensive scheme will occasionally put him closer to the line of scrimmage, like a smaller, more agile linebacker, depending on the opponent and situation.

“Sometimes I’ll be there and sometimes I won’t,” he said. “Whatever the genius coach Paulson comes up with, that’s where I’m at.”

At cornerback, SIU will start three transfers.

Juniors Craig James and Roman Tatum, along with sophomore C.J. Jennings, struggled to break the starting lineups at their previous schools, gaining a combined two starts at the cornerback position.

“They’re all three really, really good corners and have the ability to play,” Hill said. “All those guys are going to be on the field a lot.”

Sophomore wide receiver Jimmy Jones catches a pass alongside sophomore safety Jefferson Vea on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016, during practice at Saluki Stadium. (Autumn Suyko | @AutumnSuyko_DE)

Sophomore wide receiver Jimmy Jones catches a pass alongside sophomore safety Jefferson Vea on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016, during practice at Saluki Stadium. (Autumn Suyko | @AutumnSuyko_DE)

Tatum spent two seasons at Delaware, playing in 24 games while recording 65 tackles and seven pass breakups.

“Roman is a dog, a savage,” Neal said of his new teammate. “He just comes out there with the attitude that he’s gonna win every single down, no matter who it is.”

Jennings left the University of Wyoming after playing one season, recording 18 total tackles with one pass broken up.

James was the Minnesota Gophers’ primary punt returner in 2014 and 2015, but didn’t see much playing time as a corner.

MORE: Former Salukis could be first SIU teammates in NFL

Paulson said James and Tatum, along with Neal and Vea, have really improved during SIU’s training camps.

“Ultimately, you gotta be able to cover,” Hill said.

The Salukis travel to Boca Raton, Fla., to open their season against Florida Atlantic at 5 p.m. Saturday.

Staff writer Jacob Gaertner can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @JGaertnerDE.

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

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