As I watched Saluki football players run up and down Rinella Hill adjacent to Saluki Football Stadium in the hot summer sun last week, I still had worries about the 2017 team’s defense.
But one thing about the Dawg’s defense that should not worry any Saluki fan this fall is its defensive backfield.
Two of the top 10 defensive backs in the Missouri Valley Football Conference will be Saluki returnees. And there are at least five other roster players who will contribute minutes in shutting down opponent’s wide receivers.
You know you have great defensive back talent when some of your starters from a few years ago may be displaced by new arrivals. Both cornerback and safety roster spots are full of talented players, but safety is probably the most solid of the two positions.
A few years ago, Indiana prep star Ryan Neal burst onto the scene at free safety. He has great size, but he has great genes too. His older brother Mike Neal played six seasons for the Green Bay Packers. Neal was sixth in tackles in 2016 for SIU with 49.
Lining up with him in the last few years is Florida native Jefferson Vea. He had 60 tackles in 2016. But nipping at the heels of Vea and Neal is newcomer, sophomore Jeremy Chinn of Indiana.
Chinn was named one of the top five Safeties in the MVFC as a freshman by Herosports.com. Jeremy had 51 tackles as a true freshman last season. Chinn may even compete for a starting spot.
Whatever the case as far as starters, Hill is set up to have a vibrant rotation at the safety spot when the season starts. Also named to the Hero Sports top-five team, at cornerback, is senior Craig James.
James, an Edwardsville native, signed with University of Minnesota a few years ago, after being rated a three-star recruit coming out of high school. Things didn’t work out with the Gophers, so Craig decide to try his luck a little bit further south — and closer home.
After learning the playbook, James took over the right cornerback spot and has not relinquished it. James is not what would one call “ideal” as far as height for a corner at 5’10”, but packs a punch at a solid 200 pounds and runs a 4.5-second forty-meter dash time.
James left cornerback mate has yet to be determined, but there are some pretenders. Roman Tatum, Shawntrez Spates and CJ Jennings all can get the job done on the left side.
Chris Barron is a columnist and sports reporter for the Carbondale and Weekend Times.