Numbers game adds up to more depth this spring for Western Illinois football

This spring, the Western Illinois football team has more returnees than last year’s team had participants in spring practices. (Photo by

By Barry Bottino

During his first set of spring practices at Western Illinois one year ago, head coach Myers Hendrickson had 58 players on his roster.

This spring? Hendrickson, the now second-year WIU coach has more returning players in the program than the 58 of a year ago, a fact that isn’t lost on him.

At the first team meeting of the spring semester, “it was very exciting to have that many returners,” Hendrickson, a former WIU player, said with a laugh. “It was a whole year of newness that we just came off of.

Myers Hendrickson

“I’ve had great familiarity with everything going on here at Western Illinois, but the increased familiarity of our roster with our staff and our schemes goes a long way going into spring ball.”

The Leathernecks began spring practices March 24 with nearly 75 returnees and will host their annual spring game April 21 at Hanson Field in Macomb.

With so many players coming back, along with multiple mid-year transfers, position battles have blossomed.

“(It has) allowed us to see great competition throughout our spring opportunities at all position groups,” Hendrickson said. “With our spring ball numbers last year, it was very hard to get the amount of reps you needed.”

Offensive additions

Since going 0-11 last season, the program’s first winless season since 1944, Western has undergone quite a change, most notably on offense.

The Leathernecks added seven new offensive linemen, including transfers from the FBS, FCS and junior college levels.

Two quarterbacks have added to the depth at that position in former Northern Iowa backup Matt Morrissey, an Elmhurst native, and California juco transfer Nathan Lamb.

“Offensively, we do want to run the football, and we want to be a physical offense,” Hendrickson said. “You still have to make sure you’re doing that off of the strength of your personnel.”

Despite rushing for 232 yards in a season-ending overtime loss to Illinois State in November, the Leathernecks ranked 115th nationally (out of 123 teams) in rushing offense, averaging 88.5 yards a game.

By contrast, new offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Pat Denecke’s Valparaiso team rushed for more than 125 yards a game last season.

Denecke is one of several new additions to the offensive staff.

WIU has added wide receivers coach Gregory Hardin, who recently coached the position at FCS Eastern Washington. Hardin played at the University of North Dakota and spent a season with the Denver Broncos.

Hardin will be tasked with finding a new go-to guy after the departure of Naseim Brantley, who caught nine TDs in only 10 games and led the Missouri Valley Football Conference with 89.3 receiving yards per game in 2022.

Brantley, a New Jersey native, departed for FBS Rutgers via the transfer portal after winning MVFC Newcomer of the Year last season.

Tommy Crayton (Presbyterian) will coach tight ends and fullbacks. Last month, North Dakota announced that it had hired WIU running backs coach Donnell Kirkwood Jr. to coach the same position.

The Leathernecks expect increased performance out of the quarterback position. Last season, three different QBs started games for WIU, combining for 16 touchdowns, 19 interceptions and only 184 yards passing per game.

As a junior, Clay Bruno started the majority of Western’s games and is expected to compete with Morrissey and Lamb, a College of the Sequoias transfer.

“The hope is that we settle on one guy, but that’s going to be an ongoing competition through spring ball,” Hendrickson said. “We’re not going to name a starter right now.”

Defense leans on its strength

Though he is sitting out the spring while recovering from a torn labrum in his right shoulder, linebacker Anthony Quinney expects big things from his position group.

“We have a lot of returners who played a lot of games,” said Quinney, who had 44 tackles in six games last season before his injury. “We’ve got everybody bought in. Everybody is really focused and positive at wanting to be better as a unit and as a team.”

Ryan Crandall, a true freshman last season, thrived as Quinney’s replacement in the starting lineup. Playing in eight total games, Crandall had 29 tackles and two fumble recoveries.

Western also added nine linebackers among its off-season recruiting class, including three from the junior college ranks.

“We return, and also brought in, great linebackers,” Hendrickson said. “That’s a spot that really shows in terms of depth and talent.”

With Quinney and other returnees on board, the Leathernecks can rely on veterans to help bring new and younger players along.

“It’s so fun with the players who know our scheme,” Hendrickson said. “That’s what allows them to teach each other a little bit more organically.”

Quinney will not be on the field this spring, but he does plan for his voice to be heard.

“The ultimate goal is just to help my peers around me and my teammates and to soak up as much as I can mentally,” he said. “I want to be better with the mental part of the game, be more confident in myself and my abilities.”

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