Ethan Wirth has started 20 games in two seasons at SIU.
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, Ill. - It's not often that a starter falls in your lap a week before the first game, but that's exactly what happened when Southern Illinois signed offensive tackle Ethan Wirth in August of 2012.
The Toledo transfer arrived on campus as the team was preparing for the season opener against Eastern Illinois. He didn't play versus the Panthers, but made his Saluki debut the following week at Miami University and started the final nine games at right tackle.
Wirth recalled the whirlwind events that began with a phone call from SIU assistant coach Eric Schmidt.
"I took a look at Southern Illinois and saw that they have some great football tradition here," Wirth recalled. "I took a visit and really fell in love with the school. On that first day on campus, I pulled Coach Lennon aside and told him I want to commit here."
Little did he realize how quickly he'd be needed.
"Fortunately, Toledo's offense was very similar to Southern's offense," he said. "I kind of knew the plays and it was just a matter of learning the terminology."
Coming out of high school, the Williamston, Mich. native had scholarship offers from Indiana, Syracuse and a host of Mid-American Conference schools. He chose Toledo for its winning tradition. After redshirting in 2011, Wirth took some time away from football and ultimately decided to transfer.
"I liked Toledo and it's a great program, but after a year I realized it wasn't quite the right fit," he explained. "Football is a tough sport and really taxing. College football was a kind of a shock to me and I was wondering if I was ready for this. I took a couple of weeks off to regroup. I realized how much I love football and wanted to keep playing it."
Last season, Wirth missed the opener at Illinois with an injury but started the remaining 11 games and was named the MVFC Offensive Lineman of the Week on Sept. 23 for his performance in a win against Southeast Missouri State. He was part of an offensive line that allowed just 14 sacks all year, the fewest in the league.
"Throughout my life coaches have been telling me, `hey, you need to get bigger, you need to get bigger,'" he said. "Finally, I feel like I'm at the point where I'm big enough. I can actually start to cut weight to move faster and be more fluid."
Wirth credits offensive line coach Bill O'Boyle for his development as a player, and is looking forward to the changes O'Boyle is making now that he's assumed the added role of offensive coordinator.
"Coach O'Boyle is a blue-collar guy who is going to try to drive you into the dirt, but that's what I love about him, because he's going to make you better," Wirth said. "He likes to run to set up the pass. He wants us to be a hard-nosed team that can run the ball."
Although Wirth has started 20 games for SIU in his two seasons, the junior has yet to earn an All-Conference award. That doesn't bother him.
"I don't care too much for individual awards," he said. "I care more about an MVFC championship ring than I do about being an All-Conference player."
He's philosophical when describing the role of an offensive lineman.
"There's a lot of weight on your shoulders and even when you succeed, you have to understand you're not going to get the glory," he said. "You just put your nose down and carry the weight even though you won't be noticed for it. It's humbling and you have to have an unselfish attitude. It's a life-changing experience. It helps you understand things in life, helps you understand the big picture."
The business management major spent the summer working as a vendor for Nabisco and hopes to get a job in supply-chain management when his football career ends.
Until then, the Salukis will continue to marvel at the good fortune they experienced nearly two years ago to the day.
1. The first-team reps at quarterback have been split 50-50 between Ryan West and Mark Iannotti during the last two practices. Both QBs have flashed at times. Iannotti has impressed with his ability to throw accurately on the move. During 11-on-11 today, he rolled to his left and unleashed a laser downfield to Josh Sullivan that was right on the money. West's best play today was a perfectly thrown fly route to LaSteve McKinney. West pump faked to draw off defender Boo Rodgers.
2. Senior FB Mika'il McCall took a number of reps at tailback during today's practice and looked explosive. Here's a quick synopsis of his up-and-down career. In 2011, McCall played for the Iowa Hawkeyes and broke his ankle in the season opener against Tennessee Tech. He transferred to Southern in 2012 and led the team with eight rushing touchdowns. McCall started the season-opener at Illinois last year but was dismissed from the team the following week. He was reinstated last spring and moved to fullback. With the injury to Ken Malcome, McCall is a nice insurance policy for the Salukis at tailback.
3. With players still in shoulder pads and helmets only, live tackling is still off limits. Occasionally, though, a defender gets a little over-zealous. Safety Kendric Randolph lowered his shoulder and side-swiped McCall on one play, upending the running back. Coach Lennon promptly reminded the defense to tone it down.
4. Here's some news from the Saluki Athletic Scholarship Fund. Director Gabe Tippy reports that 53 members participated in the Take it to the Next Level program and 196 members took advantage of the 110 Percent Club option for their 2013 donations. This resulted in an $88,193 increase among those accounts. Please consider one of these two programs for your 2014 donation and thank you for your generosity in supporting Saluki Athletics.