Familiar faces back again for potent Southern Illinois offensive attack

Southern Illinois and quarterback Nic Baker were one of only 36 teams in FCS last season to average at least 30 points a game. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)

By Barry Bottino

Wherever Nick Hill looks on offense when Southern Illinois opens fall camp Wednesday, he’ll see plenty of experience.

The Salukis return nine starters on that side of the ball from a team that scored nearly 31 points a game a year ago and was one of only 36 FCS teams to average 30 points or more a year ago.

“I’m excited about this offense and where it can go,” he said Tuesday during the Missouri Valley Football Conference media days via Zoom. “It’s really in the details.”

Javon Williams Jr.

With veteran quarterback Nic Baker returning, along with preseason first-team all-conference wide receiver Avante Cox and running back Javon Williams, the Salukis have the pieces to sharpen their offensive output. The roster includes 43 players who are in their fourth, fifth or sixth year.

“Each year, you want to evolve,” said Hill, whose team ranked 13th in the nation in first downs and 25th in total offense last fall. “It’s about taking the next step. It’s situational football – third down, red zone, before the end of a half, at the end of games when you need a drive to win a game.”

Baker is entering his second full season as a starter, but Hill said this is the first fall camp that Baker begins as the undisputed starting quarterback.

“Nic plays best when he feels like he’s got something to prove,” Hill said. “He’s always heard that he’s shorter, he’s too small, he doesn’t look like a quarterback. He’ll continue to keep that edge.”

Cox, who is Baker’s former Rochester High School teammate and favorite target, is back for a sixth season. The dynamic playmaker battled injuries last season but still managed 17 yards a catch and five touchdowns. Speedy sophomore Iziah Hartrup, who matched Cox’s 43 catches last season, also returns.

The running back room has three familiar faces in Javon Williams Jr. (nine touchdowns last season), Justin Strong (5.8 yards per carry) and Romeir Elliott (4.9 yards a carry).

Up front, three starters return on the offensive line, including junior tackle Beau Branyan, a three-year starter.

“I think Beau gets kind of overlooked sometimes,” Hill said.

The Salukis, ranked seventh in the Athlon Sports preseason Top 25 poll, open the season Sept. 3 at No. 16 Incarnate Word in San Antonio. That matchup will be following by the Sept. 10 home opener against regional rival Southeast Missouri and a Sept. 17 trip to Northwestern.

SIU is coming off back-to-back seasons in the FCS playoffs and back-to-back years with a playoff win.

“The expectations continue to rise each year for our team,” Hill said.

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