Retooled Southern Illinois still features solid returning offensive production

Junior guard Chase Evans brings 29 games of experience to the Southern Illinois offensive line. (Photo by

By Dan Verdun

This spring has been a time of adjustment for Southern Illinois head coach Nick Hill.

“We’re about to have our third baby girl. She’ll probably be here anytime in the next week or so,” Hill told Prairie State Pigskin April 25.

So as Alicia, his wife, and “big sisters” Skylar and Charley, also await the birth, Hill can put a wrap on the 15 spring practices that ended in mid-April.

While his family anticipates and prepares for its new addition, Hill’s SIU football team has also welcomed new members.

“We have a lot of experience in certain areas that are coming back. Spring is always a good time to watch people compete and get better. And not just in the 15 practices, but also in winter conditioning,” Hill said. “It’s also a chance to incorporate the new guys. We have several midyear transfers.

“Our offensive line continues to get better, and we added some depth there.”

The Salukis are coming off a disappointing 5-6 record (4-4 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference). A season-ending four-game losing streak snapped SIU’s bid for a third straight playoff appearance.

“We know what it’s going to take to win. Last season we let some late leads slip away. This year we’re stressing finishing,” Hill said.

“(It was) really disappointing,” said senior quarterback Nic Baker. “In those last four games, we were winning in the second half. It left a sour taste in the mouth. Our record could have been flipped over so easily. It was a lot of shooting ourselves in the foot. 

“We weren’t a good offense or team as a whole in the fourth quarter last year. We’ve got to close out better. That was a huge emphasis this spring and even back in winter workouts.”

Minuses & pluses

Like nearly every team, SIU must retool. Gone are several productive performers the likes of big-play receiver Avante Cox, dependable fullback Jacob Garrett and versatile back Javon Williams Jr.

Despite those losses, Hill still sees promise in his offensive returnees.

“Nic is back for his sixth year,” Hill said of his record-breaking quarterback.

Baker, a redshirt senior, has amassed 6,663 passing yards in his SIU career. The Rochester High School graduate threw for 2,750 yards and 20 touchdowns last fall.

“I want to improve,” Baker said. “I want to be the best quarterback in the conference and be one of the reasons we win games.”

Hill also noted that backups Zach Zebrowski and Hunter Simmons “had excellent training camps.”

However, Zebrowski, a redshirt junior who has thrown 11 passes in his SIU career, entered the transfer portal late last week.

The Salukis, meanwhile, appear to be deep at running back.

“Our running game is solid with Ro (Elliott), Justin Strong and Shaun (Lester),” Hill said.

Elliott, a junior from Indianapolis, led the Salukis with 476 yards on the ground a year ago despite missing three games with injury.

Both Lester (157 rushing yards) and Strong (142) played in six games.

Justin Strong (6) returns from a thumb injury that limited him last season. (Photo by

Strong, a junior from downstate Belleville’s Althoff Catholic, was hampered by a thumb injury that sidelined him in 2022.

“Going into the COVID season (spring 2021), I just said forget the surgery and played through it the whole season and then finally decided to get the surgery. It took awhile to come back,” Strong said on

“He’s battled it for a couple years,” SIU offensive coordinator Blake Rolan added.

The injury certainly diminished Strong’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Strong had 10 receptions for 48 yards last season, down from his 17-catch, 160-yard, three-touchdown season of 2021.

“He’s definitely shown the ability to make big plays after the catch,” Rolan said. “At Missouri State a couple of years ago, he catches the checkdown (pass) and makes the quarterback look a lot better by catching a 5- to 6-yard route and making it into a 40- or 50-yard explosive play.”

Another versatile player is transfer running back Jaelin Benefield. In four seasons at Eastern Illinois (2019-22), he played in 31 career games and rushed for 1,198 yards while hauling in 69 passes. He has 11 career touchdowns.

“Jaelin is a fun piece,” Hill said. “We can do a lot things with him. He can run the ball and catch it out of the backfield. He can be a returner. You can line him up in the slot.”

Receiver room

The Salukis return sixth-year receiver D’Ante’ Cox, who tied with his brother, Avante, for the team lead with 46 receptions a year ago. His 696 yards and 15.13 yards per catch average also topped SIU.

“Izaiah Hartrup is back out there healthy again,” Hill said.

Hartrup, a junior, missed last season with an injury. The O’Fallon, Mo., native was SIU’s third-leading receiver in 2021 with 43 catches for 502 yards and three touchdowns.

Hill also mentioned Jay Jones, a 6-foot-3 redshirt freshman from St. Louis who had a 42-reception against Northern Iowa last fall.

“Jay Jones has come a long way (in his development),” Hill said.

Baker said, “We got some guys off injuries and going again. Everybody is practicing well, and we’re trying out different lineups and seeing what works. We feel really good right now.

“We’ve got people ready to step up and be ready to play. I’m really excited about those guys.”

Portal potential

With spring practice completed, the SIU staff has hit the recruiting trail. There’s also the possibility of adding players via the transfer portal.

“It goes both ways,” Hill said of the portal. “We have room to add a few pieces. Yes, we’ve done well in the past, but you can hurt yourself too. We want zero issues. We want great people. Ideally, you want people you have a relationship with or someone you know has a relationship with.”

News & notes

Following the NFL Draft, Avante Cox and Williams received invitations to rookie mini camps. Cox with Baltimore and Williams with Washington . . . Former University of Illinois player and Western Illinois assistant coach Zach Grant joined SIU’s staff as wide receivers coach in December. Like the Cox brothers and Baker, Grant played for state powerhouse Rochester High School. Grant replaced long-time SIU tight ends coach Pat Poore, who announced his retirement after the 2022 season. . . . The Salukis begin their 2023 season hosting Austin Peay in a Sept. 2 non-conference matchup. . . . After games at FBS Northern Illinois (Sept. 9) and at Southeast Missouri State (Sept. 16), SIU opens its Missouri Valley schedule Sept. 30 hosting Missouri State at Saluki Stadium in Carbondale.

Coming up: Barry Bottino takes a look at the Saluki defense.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: