Defensive end Sam Cook had two sacks in the season finale for Western Illinois. The junior had five or more tackles in eight games this season. (Photo by GoLeathernecks.com)
By Barry Bottino
Losing all 11 games this season left Western Illinois head coach Myers Hendrickson anything but defeated.
“We’re in position to do some really great things,” Hendrickson said in the visitors’ locker room at Illinois State Saturday after the Leathernecks lost, 20-13, in overtime. “It’s the start of something great. That’s due in part to the seniors who stayed and led us. I’m excited for the future.”
Hendrickson’s first year as head coach included massive roster turnover, an 0-11 record and several building blocks going forward. The winless record was WIU’s first since 1944.
Prairie State Pigskin examines five burning questions for the Leathernecks this off-season:
Is the 2023 starting quarterback currently on the roster?
Hendrickson used three different quarterbacks throughout the season and started junior Clay Bruno of Rochester most of the year. But in the finale at Illinois State, graduate student Henry Ogala played the entire game.
What happens with the quarterback position will go a long way toward improving an offense that averaged less than 14 points a game and compiled 19 interceptions, more than double the total of every other Missouri Valley Football Conference team. Western’s completion percentage (49.4%) was the second-worst in the league.
Western signed junior college quarterback Peewee Jarrett over the summer. He came to campus but departed two weeks later for Division II West Florida. Earlier this month, Indiana prep quarterback Jayden Whitaker, a candidate for Indiana’s Mr. Football Award, decommitted from the Leathernecks.
Can the defense rebound from a tough season?
Western showed signs of becoming stingier late in the season, allowing 30 or more points twice in its final five games. In its first six games, the defense gave up at least 30 points five times.
“Our defense played incredible,” Hendrickson said of the overtime loss to ISU, a game in which the Leathernecks had five sacks, an interception and forced two fumbles.
One major way to help the defense is to keep them off the field so much. Western’s offense averaged 11 fewer minutes of possession time than opponents this fall.
The run defense was especially troublesome, ranking last in the MVFC with 232.3 yards allowed per game. Added depth up front is critical for Western next season.
There are some pieces in place already, however. At Illinois State, WIU showed that it has some building blocks in linemen Sam Cook (two sacks, one interception) and Tre Henry (nine tackles, one sack), and linebackers Juan DelaCruz (13 tackles, two forced fumbles) and Chase Graham (10 tackles).
“I can’t wait to go over all the film of these 11 games and get after what I need to be better at,” DelaCruz said.
Can Western discover consistency in its run game?
Running back Erin Collins rushed the ball 33 times for a career-high 163 yards at Illinois State in his final college game. In the previous 10 games this fall, he had a total of 61 carries.
Finding a consistent run game could enhance the Leathernecks’ “pound the rock” identity and help the offense extend drives.
That rushing attack could start with Seth Glatz, a freshman from Morton, Ill. Glatz had 78 yards on 17 carries at ISU and averaged 4.7 yards a carry. The coaching staff is also encouraged by shifty 5-foot-6 sophomore Jaylen Reed, who battled injuries and played in only five games.
Did the best and worst news this season happen to the same player?
In the third quarter against Indiana State during the Leathernecks’ home finale, wide receiver Naseim Brantley sustained a broken left leg that led to him being taken off the field on a stretcher and having surgery in Quincy that same day.
The injury was a major blow to WIU’s offense since Brantley was the team’s leading receiver and among the national leaders in touchdowns (nine) and receiving yards per game (89) and was perhaps the worst news to happen to the Leathernecks.
The best news? Before the team’s season finale a week later at Illinois State, Brantley’s online bio was changed from “graduate student” to “junior,” meaning he has one more year of eligibility that he likely will spend at Western, according to a WIU spokesperson.
What is arguably Western’s biggest loss this off-season?
The answer might be kicker Mason Laramie, who was honored on Senior Day this month.
The graduate student was Western’s second-leading scorer this fall, making nine field goals in 12 attempts. He did not miss from inside 40 yards this season. In addition, Laramie made 15 of 16 PAT kicks this fall.
Over the past two seasons, Laramie has made 77% of his field goals and 47 of his 48 PATs.