The strength of SIU's offense in 2018 again will be found in the depth and quality at the wide receiver position.
That's not saying quarterback Sam Straub isn't also a key.
The passing game was going strong in 2017 before Straub dinged the wrist of his throwing hand. The season went downhill from there, as SIU's back-ups had problems getting the ball to their top-notch receivers.
Yes, folks, anytime Straub catches a cold, the wide receivers cough. The relationship between quarterback and wide receivers is that symbiotic. Straub wouldn't be half as effective without the MVC All-conference-level talent of his wideouts.
First of equals because of his tenure and production the last few years is Darrell James. James had two catches in last Saturday's full scrimmage, but for 60 big yards and a touchdown. His mate at wideout last weekend was JUCO senior transfer Raphael Leonard. Leonard led the wide receivers with an incredible 142 yards on only six catches. Those six catches included a one-handed grab.
"I think Ralph can be as good as anybody in our conference," Saluki head coach Nick Hill said of that catch. "He is kind of a quiet kid usually, and we just want him to cut loose."
The one-handed catch may be an indication that might happen this season.
Catching his two passes by using both his hands was James. James has more than 1,600 career yards, including 773 for 2017. Seven hundred yards doesn't seem like much to most gridiron statistic experts, but given that James' three-year buddy, Straub, was missing for half of the 2017 season, the total was decent.
"With Ralph and Darrell, it's green-light to throw to them every single time," Straub said last Saturday. "If they are out there, then I'm going to them. They are top of the country in skill level."
Who will be the third receiver in three wideout sets is still a competitive situation. Most likely, it will be Landon Lenoir. The sophomore had two catches for 19 yards and started several times in 2017 before getting put down for the season by an injury.
However, there are two to three other talented guys who will be challenging Lenoir. Sam Thompson, Sam Bonansinga and Matt Quarells also will see playing time next fall. Bonansinga is a great possession receiver, and both the sophomore Thompson and Iowa transfer Quarells have been showing promise.
As for the rest of the offense, Hill wants his team to be a bit more fired up even when Straub is not throwing. Straub had 262 yards last Saturday in 26 pass attempts, but Hill was wanting the team to celebrate the little victories, too.
"We have to have a little more edge to us," Hill said. "The offense has to get physical and also celebrate four- and five-yard runs on first-down plays. To me that is a 'big play' like a long pass to Ralph would be. Sometimes you just have to grind it out."
Next up is the official end of spring practice. The Dawgs will put on a spring game at noon this Saturday at Saluki Stadium.