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Hill looks to get Salukis back to the top in MVFC

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Hill looks to get Salukis back to the top in MVFC

Saluki head coach Nick Hill reacts to a play during SIU's fall football scrimmage on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016, at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale. (Ryan Michalesko | @photosbylesko)

Saluki head coach Nick Hill reacts to a play during SIU's fall football scrimmage on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016, at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale. (Ryan Michalesko | @photosbylesko)

Saluki head coach Nick Hill reacts to a play during SIU's fall football scrimmage on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016, at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale. (Ryan Michalesko | @photosbylesko)

Saluki head coach Nick Hill reacts to a play during SIU's fall football scrimmage on Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016, at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale. (Ryan Michalesko | @photosbylesko)

As a player at SIU, Nick Hill saw the football program at its best.

He had a 21-6 record as the starting quarterback in 2005 and ’06 as the Salukis went through a stretch of playoff seasons that saw them collect 70 wins in seven years.

When coach Jerry Kill departed, that rate of success was challenged and ultimately waned, leaving SIUC closer to the bottom of the Missouri Valley Football standings than the top.

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Now 31 and with only two seasons of coaching on his résumé, the job of rebuilding the program falls on Hill, whose arrival as an assistant two years ago helped to electrify the team’s offense amid an abundance of problems that led to the firing of coach Dale Lennon.

Head football coach Nick Hill speaks with the team following SIU's fall football scrimmage Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016, at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale. (Ryan Michalesko | @photosbylesko)

Head football coach Nick Hill speaks with the team following SIU’s fall football scrimmage Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016, at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale. (Ryan Michalesko | @photosbylesko)

The Salukis open their season Saturday at Florida Atlantic.

“We can sit around and talk about how close we were and the injuries, but the bottom line is we haven’t been winning,” Hill said. “We haven’t been putting this program even in the talk of contending for the Missouri Valley championship, and that’s where I want it to be. I’ve told the guys we’re as talented as teams that I was on that won 10 games. When I was here there was a sense of pride and guys expected to win. The biggest thing we have to get back is the expectations to win, not just be in games.”

When SIUC went 3-8 last year, the Salukis lost a string of close games: 48-47 to Indiana, 27-24 to Southeast Missouri State, 37-36 to Western Illinois, 39-36 to Indiana State and 35-29 to four-time defending national champion North Dakota State.

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Offensively, SIUC was potent running Hill’s offense.

The Salukis ranked fifth in the country in the Football Championship Subdivision in total offense, ninth in passing offense and 11th in scoring offense. But they balanced that with a dismal defense that was 113th out of 120 teams.

“We’re not so concerned how many yards per game we’re getting or how many points we’re scoring,” Hill said. “We’ve got to be better taking care of the ball. We put the defense in tough situations. We didn’t score at times we could have scored. That’s what we’ve talked about in camp.”

Senior wide receiver Israel Lamprakes sprints to catch a pass while being defended by junior cornerback Roman Tatum on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016, during practice at Saluki Stadium. (Autumn Suyko | @AutumnSuyko_DE)

Senior wide receiver Israel Lamprakes sprints to catch a pass while being defended by junior cornerback Roman Tatum on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016, during practice at Saluki Stadium. (Autumn Suyko | @AutumnSuyko_DE)

Hill, a native of Du Quoin, joined the SIUC staff in 2014 as quarterbacks coach and was then moved to offensive coordinator for 2015.

Now he’s trying to reverse the program’s fortunes while playing in the country’s toughest FCS conference.

Lennon appeared to be a strong pick to continue the tradition, having put together a successful run at North Dakota. But the Salukis fell on hard times, going 31-37 in his final five seasons.

Hill is tapping into contacts he made during his days in Florida as a coach and player in the Arena League. When he arrived at SIUC, the roster had two players from Florida; the Salukis now have 18.

“Recruiting is about connections,” Hill said. “It’s a place where we’ve put a heavy emphasis. When I got here I had one state to recruit. Now we’ll recruit the surrounding five hours and heavy in the south.”

Although replacing the quarterback, the Salukis’ top four pass catchers return.

Receivers Billy Reed, Jimmy Jones and Israel Lamprakes and running back Daquan Isom combined for 156 catches for 2,039 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. They will be catching passes from Josh Straughan, who was named starting quarterback last week.

Head football coach Nick Hill debriefs with players after practice on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, at Saluki Stadium. (Athena Chrysanthou | @Chrysant1Athena)

Head football coach Nick Hill debriefs with players after practice on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, at Saluki Stadium. (Athena Chrysanthou | @Chrysant1Athena)

Adding to the depth at receiver is the arrival of transfers Deionte Gaines, who played two years at Colorado State, and Ryan Sousa, who left Florida after one year. They are both Florida natives.

Hill hopes to have solidified the secondary with transfers as well, including Roman Tatum (Delaware State), Craig James (Minnesota) and C.J. Jennings (Wyoming).

The Salukis hope to begin the process of pushing their way up the standings in a conference that is stacked. The addition of the Dakota programs to the MVFC is certainly one reason the previous staff had trouble.

Now it’s Hill’s challenge for the first time as head coach.

“The league is better than when I played,” he said. “It’s a conference you want to play in, though. The expectation we have for our program is that when people talk about the MVC they have to think about Southern Illinois. We’ve got a long way to go but have to earn that back.”

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(c) 2016 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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