Aug 29, 2012
By Scott Gierman
CARBONDALE, IL - There is only so much you can learn about a team by watching the players practice and scrimmage against themselves. Once the ball is kicked with your first opponent on the field, it's a different story. Coach Dale Lennon knows that well. He summed it up in his weekly press conference on Monday, comparing the first game to military strategy heading into battle.
"You have a plan going in, but that usually lasts about five minutes and then it's just figuring things out," Lennon said.
As this year's Salukis figure out just how good they are in tomorrow's season opener against Eastern Illinois, here are a few things to look for in Week One that can provide a harbinger for the year.
How will the tempo offense work in a live game?
This has the potential to be a fast-paced game. There has been a lot of talk about Southern's new tempo offense. Eastern Illinois will also be debuting a tempo offense with new coach Dino Babers. Pushing the tempo is most effective when the defense is on its heels, so the key will be consistent execution. Sacks, stuffed running plays and incompletions will give the defense a chance to catch its breath.
Will the Saluki offense be able to make big plays?
One thing that goes hand-in-hand with the tempo offense is a big play. That seemed to be the difference for SIU in 2011. Most of the Salukis' losses were the result of a tight game hinging on one or two big plays. This year, Southern has some experienced weapons on offense who are capable of making those needed big plays. Tailback Steve Strother was responsible for three of SIU's four longest plays last year, including a 74-yard run against Ole Miss. Tight end MyCole Pruitt emerged as the biggest receiving threat last season, but this year a more seasoned receiving corps should provide more downfield options for Kory Faulkner. David Lewis made some big catches in pre-fall camp and in the two scrimmages. LaSteven McKinney has breakaway ability and has more confidence with a full year of experience after converting from running back to receiver. A big scoring play or two from any of these players might be the best sign of the season that SIU fans could hope for this week.
This offseason, Coach Lennon and defensive coordinator Bubba Schweigert have worked on avoiding giving up big plays. In Charleston, the defense will be facing an experienced quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo, who has started the last 19 games for the Panthers. However, the Saluki defense was able to make big plays against him, picking him off three times in last year's game in Carbondale. With plenty of experience on the defensive line and at the linebacker position, one of the questions will be if the secondary can force turnovers against EIU again? Safety Carlton Lewis and cornerback Emmanuel Souarin are both seniors who transferred from FBS schools this offseason. While the secondary starts two juniors and two seniors, Lewis and Souarin will each be making their first start after adjusting to a new system.
Will someone emerge as the next great Saluki running back?
Southern will use a trio of running backs with Steve Strother listed as the starter. However, Mulku Kalokoh and Iowa transfer Mika'il McCall will both get carries on Thursday. Last year, leading rusher Jewel Hampton was listed third on the depth chart heading into the first game, so it will be interesting to see if any one of this year's backs puts up big enough numbers to warrant more carries. As always, the running game will depend on help from the offensive line. This year's offensive line features only two seniors and two returning starters, left tackle Richard Wilson and sophomore Tanner Crum. Tackle Ethan Wirth could make an impact later in the season, but he isn't quite ready to start on Thursday after transferring from Toledo in the past week. The line will be tested early against an Eastern Illinois defense that returns all four starting defensive linemen. This includes se