By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, Ill. - If there was a turning point in the battle for the starting quarterback spot at Southern Illinois, it happened during the team's first scrimmage last spring on April 5.
Behind a patchwork offensive line that had lost two starters to injuries, Eastern Michigan transfer Mark Iannotti stood tall in the pocket and took shot after shot from blitzing defenders. There would be no yellow jersey to protect the quarterback on this day. Iannotti absorbed a beating, but he completed 9-of-14 passes, including a gutsy 31-yard touchdown throw to Billy Reed.
Everyone from the players to the coaching staff recognized there was something special about this 6-foot-2, 227-pound native of Schaumburg, Ill. He was hungry and determined.
"One of my strengths is toughness," Iannotti said after today's practice. "I'm willing to stand in there, take those hits, get the ball out and sacrifice my body for the team. That scrimmage gave me a chance to show what I'm made of and a chance to earn a lot of trust and respect from my teammates. I feel like it really separated me."
The fourth-year junior, who found himself behind freshman phenom Brogan Roback at Eastern last season, feels he's at his best under real-game situations.
"In those yellow jerseys, coaches can't see how you react under fire," he said. "That was part of my problem at Eastern Michigan. I never had a chance to show what I was like at game speed, when the play was on the line."
When asked to compare him to a previous Saluki quarterback, head coach Dale Lennon said Iannotti reminds him of Saluki Hall of Famer Joel Sambursky. Like Sambursky, he has plus arm strength and he's mobile, but what sets Iannotti apart are his intangibles. A straight-A student since arriving at Southern, he excels at the mental aspect of football.
During last Saturday's scrimmage, Iannotti checked out of a run play when he recognized single coverage on the wide receiver and threw a 50-yard strike to Tay Willis for a touchdown.
"I'll take Tay in a one-on-one matchup every day of the week," he smiled.
Iannotti's leadership skills were the final piece of the puzzle. Players have gravitated toward a happy-go-lucky guy who said he "can't even remember the last time I was in a bad mood."
"The first thing I did when I came here in the winter was send a text to all the receivers and tight ends and said, `hey, I'm going to be out there at the stadium every day, even if it's 20 degrees I'm going to bundle up and throw. Whoever wants to come can come.' A lot guys showed up and we got a lot of timing down."
Although he comes from a football family (his grandfather played for Wisconsin and Georgia, and his brother, Anthony, played at Northern Iowa), Iannotti had no Division I offers after his junior season at Schaumburg High School. He hired a speed coach who helped him lose weight and improve his quickness, and he blossomed into a college prospect as a senior.
After his fourth game his senior year, North Dakota State offered him a scholarship. SIU offered him, as well. He signed at Eastern Michigan, however, along with his good friends DeMarius Reed and Darius Scott -- who both played at rival Simeon High School.
Although Iannotti was behind Roback on the depth chart at Eastern, the tipping point that made him decide to leave the school was when Reed was murdered the day before the team played Ohio University last season.
"DeMarius returned to his room and two guys snuck in behind his door and tried to rob him," Iannotti recalled. "He was the kind of guy who would not back down from anything. They had weapons on them and pulled a gun and shot him. He was one of my best friends on the team."
When word got out that Iannotti was looking to transfer, SIU offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer gave him a call.
"I already had his number saved in my cell phone from when Southern recruited me out of high school," he said.
In a strange twist of fate, Iannotti committed to the Salukis, and DeBoer became Eastern Michigan's offensive coordinator.
The Salukis open the season against Taylor on Aug. 28, and Iannotti can't wait.
"We have the tools -- we have an All-American tight end, two of the best receivers in the league, and we have Malcolm Agnew," he said. "I'm just so excited to get out there in a live setting to see what we can do with all the athletes and weapons we have offensively and the solid defense Coach Lennon has put together."
The 21-year-old junior has come a long way since the first time he stepped foot on the gridiron and has his sights set even higher.
"When I was seven, my dad told me to get in the car, and I thought we were going out for ice cream," he laughed. "He drove to the football field where the kids were practicing and said, `you ready?' I went out there and fell in love and never looked back."
1. The team practiced at the stadium for the fifth-straight day thanks to the unseasonably cool weather. For the second year in a row, temperatures have yet to reach 90 degrees during camp and there's more cool weather in the forecast.
2. Starting LT Ethan Wirth is nursing a shoulder injury and that is a concern for the offensive line. Offensive coordinator Bill O'Boyle said the team has depth at center and guard, but not at tackle. Kijana Evans played the position in practice today, and O'Boyle said two other guards -- Jake Notario andSouthern Miss transfer Garrett Clark -- also have the athleticism to play tackle, if needed.
3. O'Boyle is optimistic about the running game but said it's not a finished product. He said the offensive line needs to sustain blocks downfield, and wide receivers need to do a better job of holding blocks. Some of those 5-10 yard runs by RB Malcolm Agnew in the scrimmage had the potential to be even big gainers, he said.
4. True freshman WR Jimmy Jones is making a strong push to play this year. O'Boyle called him "a very explosive kid" and said they are seriously considering pulling his redshirt.
6. Saluki legend Carl Mauck has attended practice the last two days. The retired former NFL and Saluki assistant coach has a wealth of football knowledge that the program has been able to tap over the years. No one loves his alma mater more than Carl.