Head coach Dale Lennon
By Elizabeth Robinson
CARBONDALE, Ill. - Saluki football coach Dale Lennon held his weekly press conference on Monday. SIU opens the season on Thursday, Aug. 28, vs. Taylor in Saluki Stadium.
Right now we're in game week. We're very excited to get to this point. Preparing for a team that we don't really know very well - Taylor University. They do have some experience coming back from last year. Their strength is probably on the defensive side. They return some offensive players that have played a lot of football for them. They have some receivers that are very impressive.
We're midway through the prep phase for this game and it just feels good to be in this phase knowing that we have a ballgame on Thursday night. The players are excited about that and just trying to see who we are as a football team is what we're hoping to show come Thursday. Our philosophy going into this week, not knowing a whole lot about Taylor University, we're trying to keep the focus on us also, trying to play our game, doing the things we do offensively, defensively and with special teams, and just trying to make everything fit into its places. We went through a lot of turnover in the offseason, so there's been lot of meetings that have gone on just making sure everyone is on the same page, so this is a very important game for us as far as bringing the entire picture together and making it seem natural and hopefully we'll operate with high efficiency.
You said your offenses are similar...how?
When you look at it from a defensive perspective, you look at how personnel is used and how formations are used. That's probably where there are some similarities. They run a lot of similar formations that our offense will do. So we've been preparing against a lot of the things that our offense does and hopefully that will give us enough of a foundation to be able to adapt. That'll be the key for Thursday night is we need to adapt on the run because we're just not quite sure about the looks we're going to see.
How did having a new staff play into playing Taylor as your first opponent?
It had nothing to do with that. We just needed a game. More than anything, we needed a 12th game so that we could get some experience and put everything together. That was very concerning, and it's not us; it's programs across the country. Scheduling that 12th game is almost impossible and, especially at the FCS level, there aren't many games available, and there are some teams that just don't want to play yet. These non-conference games are critical; that's what kept us out of the playoffs last year. Everyone realizes the importance of these games, so that's why you need to be successful.
Is it harder to prepare because Taylor is an NAIA school?
The one thing I have is experience at that level. The NAIA may be viewed as lower level football, but there's some pretty good talent there. It's not unheard of to have an NAIA team come in and beat an FCS program. You're looking at a team that's coming from a conference where the national champion of the NAIA comes out of that conference, so you know they play good football. Plus they're returning a lot of starters, so you size things up and put two and two together. They're talking about making the playoffs, that's their preseason goal, and they want to make their statement as far as who they are as a team. This is a team that we have to respect at a high level.
Adapting as defensive coordinator - how comfortable are you calling plays at this point?
Calling the plays isn't the difficult part. It's the time management that goes into everything. For me the most challenging part is taking a job that was 24/7 has a head coach and you throw in another 24 hours into that 24-hour period. There are some times where you just don't have time to do everything. The thing that I have to do is manage my time to a level where I just address the things that need to be addressed and go from there.
With this being an NAIA school, is there concern with coaches that players may approach this game as already won?
I think you have to have the respect for the opponents, and for us, we're trying to make a statement. We're trying to have a name here. We're not picked in the top 25; we're picked as a mid-league team in our conference; we haven't been to the playoffs (since 2009). So you worry a little bit about that, but the reality is, we need a ball game. We need to get out there and play our game, establish our identity and then build off that. I think our guys are pretty focused on the challenge at hand.
Is this a game where you're going to run like you'd normally run against other opponents, or will you practice some situational drills?
You play the game. You prepare for a four quarter game that could go down to the very last play. That's the mentality. As you're calling a game that's how you have to call it. As the game progresses naturally things change and whether you play from behind or you're playing with the lead you adapt the game plan from there. But you never go into the game saying `OK, we need to work this, we need to work that.' What you basically need to do is find a way to put yourself in the position to win in the end.
Have you made redshirt decisions?
We're going to activate three true freshmen: Jimmy Jones at the receiver/running back position, Ryan Neal at the safety position, and Chris Adkins at the safety position.
At the running back position, who's Malcolm Agnew's backup?
Our depth is very good if you look at it. We're really four deep at the running back position right now. Mika'il McCall will be available to run at the tailback position; Cameron Walter is available to run at the tailback position, and then Jimmy Jones will also get some carries at the running back position.
Tay Willis was a running back last year, but right now our depth is strong enough at the running back position. That's probably one of our deepest positions right now because we have a lot of guys that have moved over to other positions where we feel pretty good about that talent.
With activating those freshmen, does that mean playing time?
You do that with the intention of playing them. Both with Ryan Neal and Chris Adkins, those are guys that can be very good special teams player for us. Ryan Neal has had a very solid camp playing the safety position, so he's going to be a good player.
With Bill O'Boyle taking over as offensive coordinator, is there a change in philosophy offensively?
There's a change, and I don't know with fans sometimes if they really understand the changes that have been made. But there is a change in philosophy and I think the way the guys carry themselves. I think there's as much as anything a change in mentality.
Will DBs be able to stay away from penalties on Thursday?
The toughest position to play is defensive back, and that's the one call that I think is missed the most and even there we're watching it. If you're going to play on the receiver, you're going get some calls against you from time to time. If we get some guys that are running step for step and who are running with them, that's what we're trying to do with our secondary. The more aggressive you see us play in our secondary, that's a consequence that could occur because we are being more physical.
How do you feel about opening on a Thursday?
I think there are lots of advantages to playing on Thursday. The big thing is getting into that season mode where everything's routine. This gives us a couple extra days to catch our breath after the first game and you can evaluate things a little more; and once you get to week two, everything is very routine.
Thoughts on Mark Iannotti?
I'm looking forward to watching him play. I've seen him every practice. I've brought pressure against him, and I've seen him make some impressive throws where you're like `Whoa, that's good.' So what I'm wanting to see is him do that now in a game setting. I just want to see him go out there and play the way he's capable of playing and I think that will impress people.
Is Malcolm Agnew looking 100 percent healthy?
I thought that even back last spring, he found his burst, that acceleration, that makes good running backs special. There are times where we've had him just cornered, and he's gotten out of it. So I'm looking forward to a good year from Malcolm, and I think his durability is there. We ran him early in pre-fall, tested him early in pre-fall, and he passed that test with flying colors. So I think he's going be a very good running back for us.
Expectations for Jones when recruiting him?
You never know [from watching tapes] the level of competition or who they're playing. We knew we liked him, otherwise we wouldn't have gone after him as hard as we did. He exceeded expectations almost immediately. We bring our freshmen in for weight training in the summer and summer school; and from the very first time that he got into drills and lifting, he's made a positive impression. He's one of those individuals that I think is college ready right out of high school.
Thoughts on Neal?
Ryan Neal grew up in a football family with several members in the NFL, so I don't think he's been really intimidated coming to a college campus and being a part of all of this. He's had the mindset that he was going to be ready to contribute at a high level. He's getting better and better with each week he played, so my confidence in him is very high right now.