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Saluki defense on the rise

  • Southern Illinois University defensive head coach Kraig Paulson watches over a drill during the Salukis' practice Friday in Carbondale. Paulson is in his third year as defensive head coach and each of the past two seasons, SIU's defense has been 3.5 points better. This year's de- fense features two players that were on the Missouri Valley Footall Preason All-Conference Team.Defense

    Southern Illinois University defensive head coach Kraig Paulson watches over a drill during the Salukis' practice Friday in Carbondale. Paulson is in his third year as defensive head coach and each of the past two seasons, SIU's defense has been 3.5 points better. This year's de- fense features two players that were on the Missouri Valley Footall Preason All-Conference Team.Defense
    MICHAEL DANN | mdann@dailyregister.com

 
By Michael Dann mdann@dailyregister.com
updated: 8/9/2018 11:41 AM

As cliche as it is, Nick Hill also knows there's a lot of truth in the mantra that "defense wins championships."

The Du Quoin native kicked off his third season as the head coach of the SIU football team Wednesday with hopes and aspirations of a successful season. This after the Salukis were picked eighth in the preseason Missouri Valley Conference Football Poll.

Hill doesn't put much stock in preseason polls, but what he will invest in is consistency on both sides of the football.

The last two years, the SIU defense, under defensive head coach Kraig Paulson, has been 3.5 points better each season. If the Salukis shave another 3.5 points on defense this year, the Dawgs could have one their better defenses since 2012 when they went 6-5. SIU hasn't had a winning season since 2013 (7-5) and his Hill's first two years, the Salukis have went 4-7.

That could all change this year and if it does, Hill knows it will start with the defense where the Salukis finished with a pair of Freshmen All-Americans last season.

Defensive lineman Anthony Knighton and Jordan Berner were named Freshmen All-Americans. Knighton led the team with 6.5 sacks and 11.0 tackles for loss and was the runner-up for MVFC Freshman of the Year and finished 11th in the Jerry Rice Award (National Freshman of the Year) voting. Knighton set SIU freshman records and led all MVFC freshmen in sacks and tackles for loss during the regular season.

Berner, a redshirt freshman from Chester, started all 11 games for the Salukis on the defensive line. He finished his inaugural season with 26 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack. He also had one QB hurry.

Hill knows the strength of his defense will start up front as the Dawgs have switched from 3-4 defense to a 4-3, which was made prior to the 2016 season.

"Up front, the defensive line is really what sticks out to me, you know, we've played a lot of young players," Hill said. "I felt like last year we got better. Jordan and Anthony were both freshmen All-American but they were freshmen and now they are back. They're bigger and they're stronger. Malik Haynes, a defensive tackle, who is 5-foot-11 and 342 pounds will team up with a couple transfers in there at the defensive line, that's where it starts."

That may be where it starts, but that's not where it ends.

Cody Crider, from Graves County, Ky., and who was fourth on the team in tackles a year ago, will start at outside linebacker and is a staple of the defense for Hill.

He isn't on all these All-Conference lists or anything but I wouldn't give him up for anybody," Hill admits. If they say 'Hey you can trade Cody Crider for whoever is on an All-Conference list,' I wouldn't do it. I mean, he's as good a football player as there is. He has the right mentality, he's fast, he can basically do it all. If he stays healthy, he can have a monster year and he's played a lot of good football. It's exciting. It seems like he's been around here for a long time but he's got two years left to play."

Lastly, Hill's dense is rounded out by Jeremy Chinn, a 6-2, 202 pound junior safety from Fishers, Ind., that not only joined Knighton on the MVFC Preasason Defensive Team, but led the MVFC in forced fumbles and was sixth in interceptions last season and is already drawing rave reviews from NFL scouts.

Chinn led the MVFC in combined forced fumbles and interceptions, and he was ninth in passes defended. On SIU, Chinn was third on the team in tackles (66) and broke up six tackles. He also recovered one fumble. Chinn earned a spot on the 2016 MVFC All-Newcomer team and was a Freshman All-American by HERO Sports. He was named second-team All-MVFC after the 2017 season.

Hill said that if his four guys can be consistently good up front than it allows for his team to cover down and highlight Chinn on the back end and feature some different blitz looks.

"I think Coach Paulson's package on defense has expanded each year too, knowing who he can trust and how much he can put on their plate," Hill said. "Guys are grinding the system and they understand it so I think that's going to help us.

"I think us being able to finish drives and do some things on offense, you know. We have to be able to close games out and give our defense some help, make sure we are not going three-and-out all the time and putting them back out there. A tired defense will give up big plays. We got more turnovers last year, we doubled them, and that's a point of emphasis that we are always going to do but we've got some length and athleticism on defense that I'm excited about."

Hill will be even more excited if that defense can win him a championship.

Even if it is cliche.

Michael Dann covers prep and college sports for the Southern Illinois Local Media News Group. Follow him on Twitter: @spydieshooter.