It is officially game week. Indiana kickoffs off the 2015 campaign against the Southern Illinois Salukis on Sept. 5th at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington. In order to learn a little bit more about the Hoosiers first opponent, Hoosier Huddle sent over some questions for Todd Hefferman of the Southern Illinoisan. I want to thank Todd for taking the time for his thoughtful and insightful answers. Enjoy.
1. What are the strengths of this team?
SIU's strengths lie up front and at safety. The Salukis return two starters on the defensive line, really three because both of their nose tackles return, and essentially three starters back on the offensive line.
SIU lost defensive end Blake Miller but returns defensive end Adam Brandt (four sacks, 4.0 tackles for loss, one interception) and nose tackles Raysean Golden and T.J. Beelen. Defensive end Brandon Williams has 52 career tackles in 32 games and should move into the other end spot. On the O-line, new center Garrett Clark started three games at guard and was a preseason All-American by College Sporting News. Left guard Jake Notario and left tackle Ethan Wirth are longtime starters, and SIU is currently working out a transfer from Iowa (Reid Sealby) and Georgia (DeVondre Seymour) at left tackle and left guard.
Safeties D.J. Cameron and Anthony Thompson are two of the best in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, and coaches are so high on their backups, sophomore Kenny James and redshirt freshman Chris Adkins, that they plan to use them in nickel packages.
2. SIU has a veteran QB with experience playing in a Big Ten Stadium. How will that help this team in Week 1?
Mark Iannotti learned a lot from that game at Purdue because he didn't play his best. A fumbled handoff led to Purdue's first touchdown, and the Boilermakers scored their second off an interception that set them up at the SIU 44. Last year was really his first action as a college quarterback, so having last season under his belt has really helped his knowledge and execution.
3. Losing MyCole Pruitt will be a big loss on offense, who is going to replace his production and leadership on the field?
That's one of SIU's many unknowns.. Adam Fuehne, a 6-7, 257-pound fifth-year senior will likely start in his place, but no one on this team is going to catch 81 passes for 861 yards and 13 touchdowns in 12 games, as Pruitt did last season. The Salukis really have a lot of unknowns at the skill positions, but Billy Reed has some starts, and Kyle Newquist was having a good season before getting injured. Look for Connor Iwema and Josh Sullivan to make an impact at the receiver spot and Josh Skadeland, a backup tight end, to get some catches against Indiana.
4. The defense has some guys returning from injury, how will they hold up against the high-paced Hoosier offense?
Pace-wise, SIU should do fine since it's been working against an offense that hasn't huddled yet. This year's team doesn't have a ton of stars - maybe Brandt, Cameron and inside linebacker Chase Allen - but is pretty deep at every position but cornerback. The Salukis will rely on their defensive line and the safeties to minimize any big errors by the new cornerbacks, Ryan Neal and Jefferson Vea, who have never played a down for SIU at that position. Neal is a former safety and a possible pro down the line, but just switched positions in the spring.
5. In your last piece on the most recent scrimmage, you brought up that special teams have been inconsistent at best, has this changed or will they go into week one struggling in these areas of the game?
Special teams are one of SIU's biggest concerns right now going into the season. Their starting punter from last season, Nick Neidig, lost his job to a former walk-on, Derek Mathewson, and both returning kickers previously lost their jobs in 2013, Austin Johnson and Chris Adams. SIU will also have new punt and kick returners, as LaSteven McKinney and Tay Willis are gone, but watch out for redshirt freshman Matt DeSomer, a 6-1 redshirt freshman from Lowell, Indiana. He's looked terrific at all three positions SIU has played him at this fall, quarterback as a wildcat option, wide receiver and punt returner.
Mathewson has a great leg, but has not been as consistent as SIU's coaching staff would like. When he misses, he misses big. Johnson has been pretty solid but is a career 7 of 12 on field goal attempts. Adams is really the Salukis' kickoff guy, and he's pretty solid. He has a lifetime average of 60.1 yards per kickoff in 29 games.
6. SIU beat Indiana in '06 has that been brought up to say 'this has been accomplished before' or is 2006 just a life time ago?
It's been a lifetime ago, but I'm sure it will be brought up at some point this week. Nick Hill, the quarterback who led the Salukis back to the victory in that game, is SIU's quarterbacks coach/co-offensive coordinator with Bill O'Boyle, so SIU will enter the game confident despite having so many new starters.
SIU rushed for 244 yards on 50 carries in that game, with two Hall of Famers. Running back Arkee Whitlock is already in, and Hill will go in at some point..