Southern Illinois wide receiver Zach Gibson (14) had a highlight catch last fall when he grabbed a 19-yard TD in a victory against South Dakota State. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)
By Barry Bottino
Zach Gibson made two receptions last season as a redshirt freshman for Southern Illinois. But the touchdown catch he made in the fourth quarter of a 42-41 upset victory against South Dakota State in October is still a memory fresh in his teammates’ minds.
“(He) came in last season and had a spectacular, critical catch in the South Dakota State game,” veteran SIU running back Javon Williams Jr. said. “He’s taken some big steps, and I’m excited to watch him play. I get goosebumps talking about it because now that I’m a senior, watching these younger guys grow and evolve is really something.”
Heading into the 2022 season, Gibson is one of four Fresh Faces for the Salukis, as chosen by Prairie State Pigskin, who are likely to step into key roles.
For Gibson, twisting his body in the air to catch a 19-yard TD over a defensive back in Brookings, S.D., last fall was eye-opening.
“That was very reassuring for me, confidence-wise,” the sophomore said. “I can come out here and make plays and help the team win. It was big.”
At 6-foot-4 and 201 pounds, Gibson – a former AAU basketball player — prefers to challenge defenders for the ball in the air.
“My strengths are as more of a deep ball guy,” he said. “I like to go up and get it – jump ball, contested, 50-50 balls. I would say my hands are pretty good. I feel like I do a pretty good job blocking as well. That’s something I’ve improved on a lot over this past year.”
Heading into the Salukis’ season-opening game Sept. 3 at Incarnate Word, Gibson said he’s comfortable at either the X or Y receiver spots on the outside.
Last season, Gibson was behind all-time SIU leading receiver Landon Lenoir on the depth chart and soaked up plenty of knowledge from the sixth-year senior.
“Landon was big for me,” Gibson said. “He was pretty much like my older brother being here at college. He really understood me.”
Lenoir ensured that Gibson knew the plays and constantly asked what he was seeing during practice. In turn, Gibson asked plenty of questions as well.
“It was huge for me to have somebody here who was a role model,” he said. “I’d like to be the player that he is one day. I want to learn what it takes to be great.”
Gibson also had an equally impactful role model growing up – his father, Oliver, who starred at Romeoville High School and Notre Dame, then played nine years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals.
“My dad has always been my hero,” Zach Gibson said. “He was on the wall in my high school. His jersey is hanging up. His picture is up there. So it’s always given me something to chase.”
Sam Buck, OL, Redshirt freshman
Ze’Veyon Furcron, an SIU legend and fixture on the Salukis’ O-line, is now a graduate assistant coach in Carbondale. Jimmy Wormsley, who started seven games at center last season, is no longer on the roster.
That gives the Salukis two spots to fill. And with veteran tackle Beau Branyan moving to guard, Buck could benefit from all that movement. A redshirt freshman from downstate Highland, the 6-3, 295-pound Buck was a three-year varsity starter in high school.
His versatility, according to Branyan, could help him crack the team’s two-deep depth chart.
Antonio Fletcher, S, Junior
After playing in 40 games at Arkansas State, Fletcher joins a solid SIU secondary. He played in four games during the 2021 season at A-State before deciding to transfer.
Fletcher was a two-time preseason All-Sun Belt Conference selection and had 134 total tackles and two interceptions with the Red Wolves. He should help make up for the loss of SIU stalwart Qua Brown, who started 37 career games, including all 13 contests last fall at strong safety.
Nick Okeke, LB, Senior
One of five transfer linebackers that are new to SIU’s roster, Okeke played in 45 career games between 2017 and 2021 at Louisville. He started 12 times and logged 115 total tackles.
In 2018, Okeke started a career-best six games for the Cardinals, piling up eight tackles against Virginia in his first college start. At 6-3, 240 pounds, his size will help the Salukis try to slow down opposing run games. SIU gave up 179.4 rushing yards last season, ranking ninth in the 11-team Missouri Valley Football Conference.