Leathernecks heating up fall season

It’s all about the heat, Jared Elliott said.

Five practices into preseason football camp at Western Illinois University, the Leathernecks will be facing some good old-fashioned August weather this week with high temperatures and high humidity.

That’s fine, said Elliott, the Leathernecks’ head coach, during Monday’s media day.

Because the last time the Leathernecks were getting ready to open the season, five practices into camp they were worried about the worst cold weather of the winter.

Teams in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision, like Western Illinois, didn’t play a fall season in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, they played an abbreviated spring schedule, which meant starting in the winter.

Given the choice between chipping ice off the artificial surface at Hanson Field, or taking a few extra water breaks because of the hot temperatures, Elliott knew how he would choose.“

I know we’re starting to get some heat coming this week,” he said, laughing. “That’s a good thing for us. Our guys need to get acclimated to that.”The players are ready for it.

“I’d rather practice now,” wide receiver Tony Tate said. “That cold was pretty brutal.”

“Personally, I like the heat,” linebacker Greg Benton Jr. said. “I’m not really a ‘cold’ guy. I prefer the heat.”

The hot weather means a normal schedule for the Leathernecks. It’s back to the routine of practices and team meetings — Monday was a day for film work.

“It definitely felt good getting back to a normal summer,” quarterback Connor Sampson said. “Normal lifting, throwing with the guys. It’s good to be back in that routine.”

“COVID really messed a lot of things up for us,” safety Michael Lawson said. “Now that we have a chance to be in the playbook, actually have a chance to ask questions, I think we’ll be all right.”

Western Illinois went 1-5 in the spring season. The Leathernecks defeated Youngstown State on April 3, then their final two games against Southern Illinois and South Dakota were canceled because of injuries and the resulting lack of depth, especially on the offensive line.

“We didn’t get what we wanted in the spring in terms of wins,” Elliott said. “We’re in the business of winning here, and our players know that. There’s certain things that it takes to win. For us it’s consistency, it’s execution, and it’s production.

“The biggest thing that I walked away with from the spring, and I say this with a lot of pride, is this team doesn’t have any quit in them. We had a lot of adversity, like a lot of teams did. We’ve been there, we’ve dealt with all of that.”

“Especially with finishing the spring season with a win, we’re trying to build on that momentum that we had, and capitalize on that,” Tate said.

The Leathernecks had the Missouri Valley Football Conference’s best passing offense last spring, throwing for 293.5 yards per game. But they were last in the conference in rushing offense, scoring defense, and total defense.

There isn’t much expected of them this season — the Leathernecks were picked 10th in the 10-team Valley’s preseason poll. It’s built a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality, the players said.

“What I’ve really liked is the competitive aspect of this football team,” Elliott said. “Great mentality, great intensity. We haven’t felt like we’ve had to pull teeth at this point.”

The schedule is brutal — the Leathernecks open at Ball State before playing perennial national powers Eastern Washington at home and Montana on the road in the nonconference portion, and then going through the conference schedule in a league considered one of the best in FCS play.

Elliott said the concern for now is just getting better.

It’s just all part of the heat of August.

John Bohnenkamp is a national award-winning writer and editor, and a regular contributor to the Pen City Current. He can be reached at editor@pencitycurrent.com

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