Positives can be drawn from losing season

Saluki quarterback Mark Ianotti makes a pass during the Salukis 44-29 loss against Illinois State University on Nov. 23, 2014 at Hancock Stadium in Normal. (Ryan Michalesko | @photobylesko)

Saluki quarterback Mark Ianotti makes a pass during the Salukis’ 44-29 loss against Illinois State University on Nov. 23, 2014 at Hancock Stadium in Normal. (Ryan Michalesko | @photobylesko)

By Tony McDaniel

SIU’s football season finally came to an end Saturday after an agonizing last six games.

The Salukis started the season 5-1 with an upset win against Eastern Illinois and blowout victories against Western Illinois and South Dakota. The final six games were the opposite. SIU was 1-5 in the past six games with big losses to North Dakota State, Northern Iowa and Illinois State. The team finished 6-6 with no Football Championship Subdivision playoff berth.

The 2014 season will be looked upon as one that fell well short of expectations set by a fast start. The season was marred by injuries, bad losses and a nasty circumstance resulting in the dismissal of two defensive starters.

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The positives in the 2014 season are not prevalent, but still exist, just on individual levels.

While the Salukis’ win and loss record was mediocre, senior tight end MyCole Pruitt had a spectacular season. He ended the campaign with 81 catches, 861 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns, more than any other Division I tight end.

Pruitt added his name to the SIU record books this season as well. He became the all-time leader in career receptions with 221 and the single-season leader with 81.

He also moved to second in SIU’s all-time receiving yards and all-time receiving touchdowns. Cornell Craig, who played wide receiver at SIU from 1996 to 1999, holds the record in both of those categories.

Pruitt’s senior season capped off an exceptional collegiate career. He is likely to earn his second All-American honor and could be playing in the NFL next season.

He is a projected fifth-round pick and the No. 7 ranked tight end for the 2015 NFL Draft, according to nfldraftscout.com.

The Saluki faithful can feel fortunate they got to watch Pruitt grace the turf at Saluki Stadium.

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Two more Salukis set individual records in 2014. Senior wide receiver Tay Willis became the single-season leader in kick return yards with 870. Senior linebacker Tyler Williamson became the all-time leader in forced fumbles at SIU with 8.

SIU will lose 17 players who saw significant playing time this season to graduation, which sets up a very bleak outlook for the 2015 season.

Next year’s team will be young and inexperienced, but a few players showed they can make an impact in the future.

One such player is redshirt freshman running back Cameron Walter.

When senior running back Malcolm Agnew’s season came to a sad end after an ankle injury kept him off the field, there were questions about who would take the reigns of the Saluki rushing attack.

Walter stepped up and beat two seniors to take the bulk of the carries. He finished the season with 323 yards and 2 touchdowns. His 210-yard performance against Missouri State was so good, it earned him National Freshman of the Week honors and a spot on the College Football Performance Awards Freshman of the Year watch list.

The 5-foot-9-inch, 210-pound running back should be exciting to watch next season. Walter is built like a barrel, and will only become harder to tackle as his career continues; his future at SIU is possibly the brightest of any player.

The season ended with uncertainty in the quarterback position. Junior quarterback Mark Iannotti and sophomore quarterback Ryan West shared playing time at the end of the season. The Saluki fans can feel comfortable knowing Iannotti could, and should be the quarterback next season.

He finished the season with 2,247 passing yards, a 63 percent completion rate and 22 touchdowns, the sixth highest in any season at SIU.

Iannotti also ran for 270 yards and 3 scores.

He was playing so well early in the season he was added to the CFPA Player of the Year watch list. If it was not for a stretch of poor starts during the middle of the season he would have never left the starting spot.

The biggest challenge for Iannotti going forward is throwing the ball to inexperienced players. His top-five receivers from this season are all seniors.

On defense, sophomore linebacker Chase Allen will return. Allen’s 95 tackles led the Salukis by a long shot. Junior safety D.J. Cameron and redshirt freshman safety Kenny James will also return for 2015. The Salukis will need them. A large part of the seniors leaving the team were defensive starters.

The Salukis’ 2014 campaign was a forgettable one on a team basis, but was a success for individual players. The future for Saluki football looks uncertain to put it lightly. The aspects that made this team good at times will be gone. There is potential for the Salukis to be good, but even more potential for a bad 2015 season.

Only time will tell what sort of product Coach Dale Lennon will produce next season.

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