Southern Illinois safety P.J. Jules (4) was the team’s leading tackler last season and likely will be in on plenty of plays this fall for the Salukis. (Photo by SIUSalukis.com)
By Barry Bottino
Whenever P.J. Jules is on the football field, he is often in several places on the same Saturday afternoon.
Though he’s listed as a safety, Jules finds his way all around the field.
“I can play man (coverage) at corner,” he said. “I can cover ground at safety. I can make tackles in the box. My IQ for the game helps, but it’s wanting to know more and wanting to learn more.”
His desire to gain more knowledge was essential this spring as the Salukis adjust to new defensive coordinator D.J. Vokolek.
“I’m excited about the new defensive coordinator,” Jules said. “He’s been teaching us some new techniques. He coaches me hard and he wants everybody to get better. I appreciate how he coaches.”
Vokolek, who has led defenses at Northern Iowa and Missouri State and served last season in a senior defensive quality control role at Nebraska, was busy this spring teaching the Salukis a defensive scheme that stresses stopping the run, creating turnovers and using a disciplined approach.
That includes leaning on physicality in the run game against Missouri Valley Football Conference opponents and avoiding mistakes.
One way to do that is a heightened focus on the value of every repetition in practice.
“Make every practice rep that you take like a game rep,” Vokolek said. “We want to play at full speed, so if we can do that, it will carry over into the games.”
Jules, who was the team leader last season with 66 tackles and seven pass breakups, knows he will continue to make an impact, such as his 11 tackles and fourth-quarter strip sack in the Salukis’ upset last fall at Northwestern.
“I feel a lot more comfortable in my knowledge of the game,” he said.
Jules’ history with SIU head coach Nick Hill goes back to the star defensive back’s sophomore year at Jones High School in Orlando.
“I love P.J.,” Hill said. “I’m drawn to that Orlando area. I was coaching there when my wife was teaching there. I coached with P.J.’s coach. He’s really developed on and off the field. In this new defense, we’ll put him in a position to make plays.”
Last year, Jules got lessons off the field from Hill on shooting a bow and arrow. This year, he’s taken more advantage of the outdoors in Carbondale.
“I’m walking through nature,” Jules said. “I get out there and connect with nature. I’m enjoying the little things.”
The Carbondale region is known for some of the state’s best hiking opportunities. Depending on the day, Jules said he will grab a water bottle and walk around campus or take a longer trek with a few snacks and bottles of water.
“It clears my mind,” he said. “It allows me to release bad things I may have and enjoy life.”
He is also focused on self-improvement and self-growth books, along with yoga.
“I’ve been doing a lot of yoga. It helps on and off the field,” he said.
While Jules is part of a veteran secondary, along with safety Clayton Bush (48 tackles last season) and cornerbacks David Miller (44 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and D.J. Johnson (42 tackles, five pass breakups), two new faces already are making an impact up front and at linebacker.
Eastern Illinois transfers Colin Bohanek, a linebacker with 200 career tackles, and Tim Varga, a defensive end with six career sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss, were first-team players this spring at SIU.
“(That) should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen them,” Hill said.
D-line all grown up
Despite losing leading sacker Richie Hagarty (transfer to Northwestern) and veteran tackle Keenan Agnew (NFL tryouts with Tennessee and the New York Jets), the defensive line will be among the most experienced units on the field.
“They’re a mature group that works hard,” Vokolek said. “They’re the most mature group in our defense, and that’s a good thing. I’m happy with those guys. There’s a lot of leadership there.”
Along with Varga’s 34 games of experience at EIU, the Salukis return sixth-year defensive tackles Kam Bowdry and Dante Cleveland, along with brothers Peyton Reeves, a junior, and Caden Reeves, a sophomore.
Also back is junior end Adam Hundemer, a junior who had 20 tackles while playing in every game a year ago.