2018 Gridiron: Western Illinois Leathernecks
2017 Overall Record: 8-4
Head Coach: Jared Elliott
ALPHA: OFFSEASON CHANGES DO LITTLE TO DIM FIGHTING SPIRIT IN CAMP LEATHERNECK
PRE-SNAP READS: Charlie Fisher’s second season at Western Illinois proved a darned impressive one, with the Fighting Leathernecks winning eight games, earning their second FCS playoff bid in three years, and finished thirteenth overall in the Nation. It also proved to be Fisher’s swan song in Macomb as well. The much traveled skipper opted in December to join Herm Edwards staff at Arizona State as the Sun Devils new Wide Receivers Coach. In contrast to some of the Institution’s more colorful and circuitous coaching searches, Western Illinois opted for a drama free in-house promotion, elevating well respected Offensive Coordinator Jared Elliott into the Leading Man Slot. On the surface, it was a move that made a lot of sense. Elliott was responsible for much of the architecture that made WIU the 16th most prolific offense in FCS last Fall. He’s got a proven working relationship with standout Quarterback Sean McGuire. And while not particularly extensive, his prior assistant coaching experiences (particularly as the OC at Carthage College) suggest his ability to sexy-up an Offense are no fluke. Those selling points, however, don’t totally do Elliott justice. I got the chance to watch him work a camp session this summer and came away mightily impressed with his passion, boundless energy, and most especially by his ability to catch the small detail even while zipping around from station to station with different position groups. The guy sees everything. Moreover, on a staff that preaches “tempo” from its players, it’s refreshing to see that same approach amplified through the way the coaches on the WIU approach their jobs as well: crisp, precise, energetic and intolerant of even the slightest acquiescence to flawless, technical execution. Those are teaching tools that figure to come in handy as the Western Staff looks to bounce back from a handful of seismic graduation losses that include FCS ADA Linebacker of the Year Brett Taylor, All-American Wide Receiver Jaelon Acklin, and All-MVFC Offensive Lineman Jacob Judd among others.
PROTECT YA ‘NECKS: With both Sean McGuire and Steve McShane (both Preseason MVFC Second Team honorees) returning to the Offensive Backfield, WIU is well positioned to replicate or better its 34 points per game scoring average from a year ago. McGuire enters his third year as the Leathernecks starter with great command of the offense and impressive size and durability. His statistical credential aren’t too shabby either. McGuire threw for 2852 yards in 2017 on a 64% completion metric. He also produced 25 passing touchdowns, against just seven interceptions. Let’s not mince words here, you can’t hope to break into the upper echelons of the Valley Food Chain without an elite QB in this day and age. McGuire fits that bill. By all accounts, Redshirt Freshman Backup Connor Sampson has made nice strides in the offense as well.
McShane led WIU in rushing touchdowns with seven as a Sophomore and despite splitting time with Max Norris in a truly balance platoon scenario, ended up as a Second Team MVFC pick last season. He finished with 582 yards on 136 carries; a clip of 4.1 per tote. He’s a super talented athlete (dual sports duty with WIU Baseball) who doubles here as an elite Return Man (18.48 per punt return) on Special Teams and a capable receiver (31 receptions, 3 TD) out of the backfield. Norris is back as well after a breakout 2017 campaign that saw him lead the team in total rushing with 667 yards, averaging nearly six yards a pop. Redshirt Sophomore Victavious Johnson showed nice splash last Fall against Tennessee Tech and lends depth to a deep position group.
The X-Factor here for The Necks would appear on paper to be Offensive Line Play. Junior Chris Zobrist (6’3” 280lbs) and Senior Thomas Kirsch (6’6” 310lbs) are the most seasoned cogs in that equation; though potential Starting Center Hunter Varga has a wealth of deep snapping reps to his credit. Drew Wagner made nine starts at Guard as Sophomore in 2016 and could be back to help here as a Senior, which could provide a tremendous boon. As best as I can tell, though, the Necks are taking long looks at the younger end of this position group and we could potentially see new starters emerge there. There’s a ton of depth here. It’s just comparatively very young.
A MAN OF LESURE: With Jaelon Acklin off seeking gainful employ in the NFL, Junior Isaiah LeSure looms as the Leathernecks Top Target in Waiting. The 6’3” 180 pound Wisconsin native hauled in 15 catches for 231 yards and two touchdowns a year ago. Judging by his targets (and his performance) in Camp, LeSure is in line for a significant uptick in workload in 2018. He plays with great bounce. Beyond that, look for Tony Tate, a Redshirt Sophomore out of DeKalb as well as JUCO Transfer John Brunner to jump into the rotational mix this Summer fighting for reps. Adam Conrady returns to headline the Tight End group. He caught 13 passes for 188 yards and three touchdowns a year ago. Tyler Slamans also got run there in 2018 and produced eight receptions of his own.
THE BUCK STOPS HERE: Defensively, the Necks will forge ahead without MVFC Player of the Year Brett Taylor and unsung Defensive Back David Griffith. There is still plenty intact here however from a unit that allowed just 22 points per game a year ago in finished fourth in the League in both Total and Scoring Defense. And that includes a trio of tent pole players in Defensive Tackle Khalen Saunders, Defensive Back Justin Fitzpatrick and Linebacker Quentin Moon.
Saunders has become a bit of a preseason Media darling this Summer. And deservedly so. The surprisingly nimble 310 pounder was credited with 57 tackles, 12.5 stops for loss, and seven and a half Quarterback Sacks last Fall in route to MVFC First Team plaudits and Third Team All American Honors from Phil Steele. This Summer, Khalen was added to the Buck Buchanan Award Watch List and he’ll be the anchor piece on a largely reconfigured Front Line. J’Len Smith, Shabar Wilson, and Kyle Williams all got some early career burn on the Line last season and could all be in line for “promotions” so to speak into more prominent roles.
Fitzpatrick earned First Team MVFC Preseason accord after leading the Conference with 5 interceptions last Fall. He also posted 57 tackles, made four and half stops for loss, and broke up six passes. Xavier Rowe (50 tackles in 2017) Mike Viti and Eric Carrera (21 stops) provide veteran level support at the back of the Defense.
Quentin Moon will enter 2018 as a Team Captain and he’s certainly earned those stripes. The Junior out of Indianapolis was an Honorable Mention All-League Pick and probably would have merited greater than that had he not spent the Autumn sharing field space with the Country’s best Linebacker. Moon still managed 70 solo tackles (3rd most on the team) A tremendously instinctively talent, Quentin also had 11 stops for loss and 3.5 Sacks. Absent Brett Taylor, his continued ascent is critical. Pete Swenson and Riggs Baxter played in all twelve games for WIU last Fall. Their window will likely be fully flung open this season for upsized roles and grander production.
THE DUERR DIAGNOSIS: They already play in the best FCS Football Conference in the galaxy. And I am not sure they did themselves any favors in the Non-Conference with a long road trip to Montana State to open the year, a BCS date with the Fighting Illini in Champaign, and then a visit from traditionally thorny Montana in Week Three. There’s not a single gimmie in that gauntlet, which means if WIU is to return to the Postseason for the third time in four years, the Necks will have earned it. Count me among the folks who think they’ve got an above-average shot to do just that. I think the Leathernecks Question Mark areas a more than a little oversold. His tenure may have been brief but I though Charlie Fisher did an excellent job evaluating recruiting talent and many of these Sophomores in the program now are pretty good football players even now. Granted, whether that’s enough to steal you a win in Vermillion or Normal just yet remains to be seen. But I do think these guys will compete and execute at a very high level. And again, where WIU is good: they are very outstanding. Difference making pieces in difference making spots. And quite honestly, I think Jared Elliott is going to be an absolute star in this business. If the Necks can affect what he envisions, I don’t think there will be man flaws on the field to exploit for opponents. I am setting the over/under at six and half wins and I think you bet high here. If memory serves, every single year I can recall Western Illinois being “snubbed” a bit in the preseason poll, the Necks have taken umbrage and found a way into the Leagues Top Four by season’s end. I’ve got a funny feeling History repeats itself at Hansen Field this Autumn.