Aug. 7, 2013
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, Ill. - Saluki linebacker Taylor Hunter's face beams when he talks about growing up in Roanoke, Ala. -- an idyllic small-town not far from the Georgia border -- where the 6,000 or so residents take care of each other, know right from wrong, and share a deep passion for football.
He paints a picture that's part Mayberry and part Friday Night Lights.
"It's like a big family," he said. "It's a very special place to live, a quiet town, with not much trouble."
It's a town where kids like to go fishing and go to Sunday School, where it's safe to walk down Main Street at night.
"If somebody saw somebody else's kid doing something wrong, they'd step in and say something," Hunter said. "It's a little, safe town where everybody stays on the same path and then goes off to do great things in life."
According to the 2000 census, the racial demographics of Roanoke are 60 percent white and 40 percent African-American, yet skin color is hardly an issue for this rural, southern community.
"The friendships that I built growing up, no matter what race or ethnicity they were, they are like brothers to me," Hunter said. "Everybody looked out for each other."
What unites the town more than anything is Handley High School football. Roanoke literally shuts down on Friday nights in the fall amid pre-game pep rallies and parades.
"It's something special to see," said Hunter, who led the team in tackles his senior year and helped them reach the fourth round of the 4A state playoffs. "Everyone would be at the game. No one would be working. Football is a way of life. It's so hard to explain it, you have to be there."
College programs scour the state of Alabama for talent, and they had no trouble finding Hunter in tiny Roanoke. He was offered a scholarship by numerous Division I schools, including Duke, but ultimately chose Southern Illinois after defensive coordinator Bubba Schweigert showed him SIU's attacking 3-4 scheme.
In 2010, Hunter became a rare true freshman to play in all 11 games, and has been a mainstay in Southern's linebacker rotation the last three years. He has never started a game, though, playing behind Saluki stalwarts such as Stephen Franklin and Joe Okon.
Finally, as a senior this year, he's penciled in as the starter alongside Bryan Presume.
"I've gone back and watched film of how those guys did it and picked up some of the things they did," he said. "I just want to keep the linebacking tradition going."
At 6-foot and 220 pounds, Hunter feels he has the perfect blend of size and speed.
"I've always been a hard-nosed football player," he said. "I can beat you with my speed, but I can also run through you. I'm going to come out every day and give you my best,"
He's also a special teams warrior, who returned a blocked punt for a touchdown against Youngstown State during his freshman year.
"For a team to be complete, you have to have great special teams," Hunter said. "I tell guys, 'You can't take a play off on special teams, because it can put you in a position to score or put you in great position defensively. Our coaches take it very seriously."
Hunter is a radio/TV major, who was named to the Missouri Valley Football Conference Academic Honor Roll last year, and plans to work in sports production after he graduates.
Midway through this morning's practice at Saluki Stadium, thunder rumbled nearby and the team had to take shelter in the locker room. Practice resumed 30 minutes later and it never rained more than a light sprinkle.
If the season started tomorrow, SIU's offensive line would feature, from left to right, LT Ethan Wirth, LG Nate Haremza, C Tanner Crum, RG Corey Boemer and RT Victor Craven. Everyone except Boemer has starting experience. As a unit they average 6-foot-5 inches and 297 pounds.
Neither guard position is set in stone, however. Haremza is being challenged by Jamarcus Robinson, a mammoth 6-foot-3, 323-pound transfer from Holmes Community College. Boemer is battling Jake Notario. A 6-foot-4, 312 pound redshirt freshman, Notario had a strong spring but is currently dealing with a minor injury issue.
Although they are likely to redshirt this year, true freshmen offensive linemen Kijana Evans and Austin Olsen have both made a favorable impression so far. Evans threw a devastating downfield block in today's 11-on-11 scrimmage.
You may recall that Rodgers started in 2011 and showed signs of being an impact player in both his freshman and sophomore years. In 2010 he tied for the team lead in interceptions, including a pick at Illinois. His 2012 season was derailed due to a violation of team rules, and the brother of Saluki great Marty Rodgers has steadily worked his way back into good graces.