At football practice Monday, on the fields outside Saluki Stadium at Southern Illinois University, the Salukis' first-team linebacking unit featured four players who have never started a game in their college careers.
There are no worries in Carbondale, though. Help is on the way.
Junior inside linebacker Chase Allen, who started every game in 2014 and led the team with 95 tackles, should be back in the lineup soon. The Belleville East product missed spring ball with a back injury and is still not 100 percent, but he’s pain-free and available for limited duty. He expects to start on Sept. 5 at Indiana.
“I’m a little bit behind,” Allen admits. “I’m just studying and trying to get on the same page as my teammates.”
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Allen has appeared in 24 games for Southern and established himself as one of the top defensive players in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. He ranked ninth in the league in tackles a year ago.
“I want to set the bar high,” Allen said. “I want to be an All-American. Watching some of the older guys do great like MyCole [Pruitt], that inspires all of us.”
With a inexperienced group of linebackers surrounding him, Allen’s leadership will be a key to the group’s success.
“He’s a natural leader,” head coach Dale Lennon said. “His teammates respect him and he will be our defensive leader.”
In five of the 12 games last year, Allen recorded double-digit tackles. His six tackles for loss were fourth most on the team. Allen proved himself against some of the best competition in the Valley. Against Northern Iowa, he set a personal record for tackles in a game with 12. During the Oct. 11 matchup against eventual national champion North Dakota State, he forced a fumble and made seven tackles.
The junior linebacker said he doesn’t worry about his stats. He is simply focused on his duties as the team’s defensive leader.
“I just try to talk to the younger guys and get them on the same page as us,” Allen said. “The quicker they’re on the same page with the older guys, the better we’re going to be.”
SIU was picked seventh in the 2015 Missouri Valley Football Conference preseason poll of coaches and media. Allen was a pre-season all-conference honorable mention pick, as was offensive lineman Ethan Wirth.
Four-time defending national champion North Dakota State was the preseason pick to win the league, followed by Illinois State, Northern Iowa, Youngstown State, South Dakota State and Indiana State. Western Illinois, Missouri State and South Dakota rounded out the 10-team league.
SIU was picked seventh for the third time in four years. After being picked seventh in both the 2012 and 2013 preseason, the Salukis went on to finish third and second, respectively, in those seasons.
The Salukis open the season at Indiana on Sept. 5.