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Around the Valley: Salukis looking to build on back-to-back FCS playoff appearances, wins

SIU returns most of its offensive weapons starting with record-setting QB Nic Baker

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Southern Illinois quarterback Nic Baker has his helmet knocked off by North Dakota State's Josh Hayes on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, in Carbondale, Ill.
David Samson/Forum Communications Co.
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FARGO — Southern Illinois had such a veteran team last fall that the Salukis could have been in contention for the oldest team in the history of college football. They had 16 players in their sixth year of school.

SIU is younger this year, but not by a lot. Forty-three players are either in their fourth, fifth or sixth year of college.

“We were old last year, but we have a good mix of older guys and young guys,” said Nick Hill, in his seventh year as the SIU head coach.

Back are two players named to the Walter Payton “watch list,” the award that goes to the best offensive player in the FCS in quarterback Nic Baker and receiver Avante Cox. Baker emerged from a hotly contested depth-chart battle to start all 13 games last season, setting a school record for passing yards in a season with 3,231. His 27 touchdown passes were the second-most in school history.

Cox had 43 receptions for 739 yards and five touchdowns despite missing three games with injury. He had 66 receptions in 10 games in the 2021 spring season.

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Leading rusher Javon Williams Jr., who also plays quarterback, is back, although he wasn’t the run-pass dual threat he was in the spring ‘21 season when he was a Stats Perform first-team FCS All-American.

“We’ve got the majority of our guys back on offense, but each year we want to evolve by taking the next step,” Hill said. “It’s situational football, it’s executing when that time is called on third down, the red zone or situations at the end of the game.”

Hill thinks the 5-foot-9, 194-pound Baker will only add to his status this season. It’s the first August where he is going into the season as the undisputed starter.

“That’s where he can take that next step,” Hill said. “He plays his best when he feels like he has something to prove. He’s shorter, small, doesn’t look like a quarterback, but he’ll continue to keep that edge.”

SIU does not face South Dakota State because of the rotating Missouri Valley Football Conference schedule, but has North Dakota State and Northern Iowa at home at the end of the regular season. Key road games are at Missouri State and South Dakota.

That’s where SIU will be looking to change things around. The Salukis dropped three of their last four regular season games, but still reached the FCS playoffs, beating USD in the first round before NDSU ended their season in the second round with a 38-7 win at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome.

“Expectations continue to rise every year for our team,” Hill said. “Back-to-back years in the playoffs with a couple wins raises expectations.”

Missouri Valley Football Conference

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Day 1: Illinois State Redbirds

Day 2: Indiana State Sycamores

Day 3: Missouri State Bears

Day 4: North Dakota Fighting Hawks

Day 5: Northern Iowa Panthers

Day 6: South Dakota Coyotes

Day 7: South Dakota State Jackrabbits

Today: Southern Illinois Salukis

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Day 9: Western Illinois Leathernecks

Day 10: Youngstown Penguins

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