Daily Egyptian

Eighth-ranked SIU football kicks off Sept. 9 at Saluki Stadium

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Fireworks explode over Saluki Stadium following the Salukis' 50-17 win over the Murray State Racers on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, at Saluki Stadium. (Ryan Michalesko | @photosbylesko)

Fireworks explode over Saluki Stadium following the Salukis' 50-17 win over the Murray State Racers on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, at Saluki Stadium. (Ryan Michalesko | @photosbylesko)

MICHALESKO

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Fireworks explode over Saluki Stadium following the Salukis' 50-17 win over the Murray State Racers on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2016, at Saluki Stadium. (Ryan Michalesko | @photosbylesko)

By Denton "Gio" Giovenco, Sports Editor

SIU football enters the 2017 season ranked eighth out of 10 teams in the Missouri Valley Football Conference preseason poll compiled from votes by coaches, local media and sports information directors within the conference.

At the helm of the Salukis is head coach Nick Hill, entering his second full season in charge of his alma mater after spending 2014 as quarterbacks coach and 2015 as offensive coordinator.

Offensive coordinator John Van Dam and defensive coordinator Kraig Paulson are both returning for second seasons in their respective rolls, adding continuity to both sides of the ball for SIU.

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“Both the coordinators are the exact same for this year,” Hill said. “So the terminology for [the players] is going to be the same.”

The Salukis return 15 starters from the 2016 season, consisting of seven offensive, six defensive and two special teams players. This is important to coach Hill as a building-block for the 2017 season.

“The majority of our team that played last year is coming back,” Hill said. “So a lot of experience is returning.”

Saluki football coach Nick Hill confronts a referee while junior offensive lineman No. 75 Austin Olsen observes during the Salukis’ 45-39 loss to South Dakota State on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, at Saluki Stadium. (Jacob Wiegand | @JacobWiegand_DE)

Among the returning players, six have garnered preseason MVFC honors. Senior offensive lineman Austin Olsen was named to the preseason All-MVFC team. Sophomores Jeremy Chinn and D.J. Davis join seniors Hans Carmien, Connor Iwema and Craig James as honorable mentions to the preseason All-MVFC team.

After logging a 4-7 overall record (2-6 MVFC) in 2016 and missing the playoffs for the seventh season in a row, the gridiron Dawgs are faced with mounting pressure to churn out a winning season.

Despite its losing record in 2016, SIU football showed signs of life on the offensive side of the ball. The Salukis ranked 39th nationally in scoring offense, averaging 30.9 points per game last season, led by a 12th ranked total offense that averaged 470.2 yards per game.

The offensive output in 2016 was fueled in large part by a fourth ranked passing offense that averaged 331.6 yards per game via 63.6 percent pass completion by Saluki quarterbacks — good for 12th best in the nation.

Jacob Wiegand
Freshman running back D.J. Davis takes the ball toward the end zone during the first half of the Salukis’ matchup against WIU on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016, at Saluki Stadium. (Jacob Wiegand | @jawiegandphoto)

Not to be overlooked is the output by sophomore D.J. Davis. A true freshman in 2016, he was named the to MVFC All-Newcomer team as well as earning an honorable mention to the All-MVFC team as a return specialist. Davis led the MVFC in kick return average and was fifth in all-purpose yards per game with an average of 110.2.

His contributions — including the second-longest kick return in school history measuring in at 98 yards — led to an eighth overall national rank for SIU football in kickoff return average at 23.63 yards per return.

Coach Van Dam looks to build off of 2016’s successful offensive season with junior starting quarterback Sam Straub under center.

Straub started the final three games of last season, completing 57.9 percent of his passes for 1,155 yards and seven touchdowns. Four of his seven touchdowns came in the final game of the season in a win over nationally-ranked No. 24 Western Illinois.

SIU sophomore quarterback Sam Straub launches a pass over South Dakota junior defensive lineman Jake Leohr (18) on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2016, during the Salukis’ 35-28 win over the University of South Dakota Coyotes at Saluki Stadium. (Ryan Michalesko | @photosbylesko)

More work has to be done on the defensive side of the ball if the Salukis want to contend in the MVFC this season. SIU finished the 2016 season ranked 100th nationally out of 122 teams in total defense, allowing an average of 433.1 yards per game to opposing teams leading to an 85th-ranked average of 30.7 points per game allowed.

The 108th-ranked passing defense that allowed an average of 267.2 yards per game in 2016, to go along with a rushing defense that ranked 64th overall while allowing an average of 138.5 yards per game are sore spots for the Salukis.

Yet the numbers show that SIU was not completely lost on the defensive side of the ball in 2016. Last season the Salukis ranked 11th nationally in red zone defense, holding opposing teams to a score rate of 71.4 percent while inside the 20-yard line. The Dawgs also ranked seventh in third down defense, holding opposing teams to a 29.7 percent first-down conversion rate.

Last season, six of SIU’s seven losses (outside of a 21 point loss to No. 12 Northern Iowa on Oct. 1) combined for an average deficit of 5.83 points — less than a single touchdown. If the Salukis can shore up the defensive side of the ball allowing their potent offense to improve on last season’s 80th national rank in time of possession (29.08 average), close games that were lost last season can easily turn into wins in 2017.

One facet that both sides of the ball can improve on in 2017 is penalties. The Salukis ranked 87th nationally in total penalties in 2016 with 80, totaling a 100th-ranked 782 penalty yards. This translated into a 91st-ranked 7.27 average penalties per game for SIU last season.

Some blame for these numbers can be attributed to the youth of the SIU football team in 2016, with 17 true freshmen and red-shirt freshman starting for the Salukis through the last month of the season. Last season was also the first season with coaches Hill, Van Dam and Paulson manning their respective rolls as head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator.

Junior cornerback Craig James sprints onto the field Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016, before the start of SIU’s 30-22 win against Southeast Missouri at Saluki Stadium. (Morgan Timms | @Morgan_Timms)

With game experience from last season under the players’ belts, and another year of preseason training under the same offensive and defensive schemes spearheaded by Van Dam and Paulson, better team chemistry and discipline should help the Dawgs alleviate some of the penalty troubles that plagued the team in 2016.

“We have to be a consistent football team that becomes great at the fundamentals,” Hill said. “It’s taught at Pop Warner all the way through to the NFL that the best teams are the ones that are consistent.”

The first fall practice for the Saluki football team took place Saturday morning, Aug. 5 outside of Saluki Stadium. Coach Hill expressed his feelings on the upcoming 2017 season following the workout.

“I’m just excited to be back here and get 2017 started,” he said. “I’m excited about this group of guys … from the coaches to the players and everybody involved. We’re ready to challenge these guys to be the best overall consistent football team that they can possibly be.”

SIU football begins the 2017 season against Mississippi Valley State on Sept. 9 with their home opener at Saluki Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m., with fireworks to follow the completion of the game. Be sure to show your Saluki pride and don your SIU gear for this Maroon Out game.

Sports writer Denton “Gio” Giovenco can be reached at dgiovenco@dailyegyptian.com or on Twitter @DentonGiovenco.

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

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