WIU MEDIA DAY: New tools, and new names, for Leathernecks

By John Bohnenkamp

MACOMB, Ill. — Zach Glisan understands the narrative.

In a lot of ways, it does feel like Western Illinois University’s football team is in transition, considering the names that were lost from last season.

Glisan, a senior linebacker who ranked second on the team with 83 tackles last season, says the new names may be just as impactful as the old ones.

Glisan knows that on defense, for example, linebacker Quentin Moon (108 tackles), defensive tackle Khalen Saunders (72 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs) and linebacker Pete Swenson (24 ½ tackles for loss, 14 ½ sacks) aren’t going to be back.

But he’s seen the depth around him.

“It’s different,” Glisan said at the Leathernecks’ media day on Monday. “The guys we lost — Q, Khalen, Pete — they were fun to play with. But there’s been some guys developing for two or three years that finally get their opportunity. Everyone is going to see this season that they can play.”

“We have a lot of guys we know are going to step up this year,” said defensive lineman Shabar Wilson. “We were waiting with the sense of knowing that, one day, we would be great, with the opportunity that we were going to take and run with.”

Wilson thought about the players surrounding him on the defensive line.

“When they get their time, they’re going to shine,” he said.

And that’s what coach Jared Elliott, in his second season as head coach, is counting on at many positions, coming off a 5-6 year in which the Leathernecks went 4-4 in the crucible of the Missouri Valley Football Conference season. Only 11 starters return — five on offense, four on defense and two on special teams.

The summer, Elliott said, was important.

“I think it was huge for us,” Elliott said. “It was a critical part of the process, and the phase, that we needed as a football team, with the new faces and new guys emerging into some new roles for us. I walked away from the summer thinking we had one of the better summers, in terms of the commitment level, in terms of the team camaraderie. Really, a lot of maturity.

“It’s the nature of college football. You’re going to enter young men into your program. You’re going to exit them out. It’s the revolving door, the natural cycle. There is no division, or cliques, within this team. That’s a credit to our players.”

Elliott said August will be about finding the right fit at several spots, and about tweaking the Leathernecks’ schemes to get the best players on the field.

“There is no question that we have a lot of healthy competition on our team that’s going to make our team better,” Elliott said. “There are opportunities on our roster for someone to go win a job, earn a job, and to make a statement that they have the ability to make an impact for this team.

“That’s healthy for your football team, and our team has responded really well to that.”

Elliott will have to find a quarterback. Sean McGuire left as the career leader in five passing categories.

Connor Sampson, a junior, has worked as McGuire’s backup since his arrival.

“We’ve had a young man here for the last three years — I think we’ve had the best backup quarterback in the country in Connor Sampson,” Elliott said. “He’s been in our system, he’s learned from the all-time leading passer in Western Illinois history. I know this — he has earned the respect of this football team, by being the quality young man that he is.

“He’s been in our system, and I trust Connor. But having said that, we’re not giving positions to anyone, and Connor knows that.”

Elliott said that there are “plenty of tools in the toolbox” when it comes to the offense, and the same could be said for the defense.

It’s just new tools, new names.

And Elliott is OK with that.

“We came to camp ready,” he said.

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