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In the trenches: Salukis have plenty of experience on the line
CARBONDALE - Most of the ballcarriers have changed, but this year’s Southern Illinois University offensive line looks a lot like last year’s edition.
Three starters return from last year’s unit that helped the Salukis lead the Missouri Valley Football Conference in scoring. SIU averaged 37.9 points per game on the way to the national semifinals, finishing 12-2. Center Mike Farrell and guards Aaron Lockwood and Shawn Smith return up front for first-year SIU coach Dale Lennon.
“A lot of the stuff, it’s the same, just with a new name,” said Lockwood, a preseason all-conference guard. “There are a few pass plays where we’re trying to get it out of there a little quicker, some quick screens and some quick outs. It’s not much of an adjustment. A pass block is still a pass block.”
Although Lennon wants to keep SIU’s offense to a 50-50 mix of run and pass, Lockwood and the crew might be powering off the snap a lot more than backing up off it this fall.
The Salukis rushed for an average of 206.9 yards per game last season, third in the MVFC, and return three tailbacks. Of the four quarterbacks in camp, none of them have ever started a collegiate game. The wide receiver group is also quite new, as SIU graduated its top four from last year.
Farrell, a 6-foot-3, 295-pound senior who started all 14 games last season, said the line is ready for anything.
“We pride ourselves by kind of leading by example,” he said. “Taking control of the line of scrimmage and being ready for anything, whether it’s a screen or a run, we work together. Us three have great chemistry, and with David Pickard on the left and a couple other guys on the right, we’re a veteran group.”
Lockwood and Smith have started 26 of the last 27 games at the guard spots.
Tackles Darren Marquez and Craig Kombrink graduated, along with Andrew Kernes, but SIU could have considerable size and experience at those spots. John Purdy, a 6-4, 340-pound transfer from Ball State, started Saturday morning’s scrimmage with the first team at right tackle. Purdy played in 12 games last season, starting seven, for the Cardinals. Mike Nitti, a 6-4, 290-pound junior who played in all 14 games last season, could also start on the right side. Instead of the 280-pound Marquez at left tackle, the Salukis could have the 6-5, 277-pound Pickard.
Pickard, a redshirt freshman from Oak Park, has been playing with the first team at that spot most of camp.
Lennon said he had a lot to choose from at the tackle spot.
“We do have some options,” he said. “Maybe we can move Shawn Smith out there, or move one of those younger guys out there. A lot of times, on the offensive line, it’s how they work together as much as who is the main guy stepping up.”
With three weeks to go, it’s up to Lennon and offensive line coach Scott Fuchs to get the front five in line for the season opener against Hampton. Lennon said Fuchs, a former offensive lineman under him at North Dakota, was off to a good start.
“They’re an athletic group,” Lennon said. “The thing that I like there is we’ve got three returning starters. That’s a great foundation, and I really like the depth that’s developed. We have some good, quality linemen that will be able to play at this level. Now it’s just a matter of sorting out who will fit where.”
The Southern Illinoisan