High School Football

Books and ball give East Side’s McDowell an early start at SIUC

East St. Louis football star Oliver McDowell Jr. signs with SIUC

East St. Louis linebacker Oliver McDowell Jr. reflects on signing a national letter of intent to play football at SIU Carbondale.
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East St. Louis linebacker Oliver McDowell Jr. reflects on signing a national letter of intent to play football at SIU Carbondale.

Oliver McDowell Jr. didn’t experience any difficulty fitting in at East St. Louis High School.

McDowell transferred to East Side from Rock Island High School before the start of the second semester last January. Since then, he has enjoyed a bang-up senior season on the football field, racked up a 3.9 grade-point average and signed a letter of intent to play at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

Nothing to it.

The 6-foot-2, 220-pound McDowell signed two months ahead of other recruits, having already completed his academic requirements. He’s enrolled at Carbondale for January.

“I just took the opportunity to kind of get a head start on things and get a few practices under my belt before the summer so then I’ll have an advantage,” McDowell, 18, said Wednesday morning after a signing ceremony witnessed by his parents, Oliver McDowell Sr. and Temia Rice, and many of his Flyers teammates.

“I was already ahead in credits,” said McDowell, who hasn’t declared a major. “The only thing that was required was four years of English. I acquired that by taking two English classes this first semester. My mother always stressed good grades. I always wanted to make my family proud. That’s why I always stayed in the books.”

If it was mom that inspired learning, it was dad who pushed football. The combination of books and ball have helped McDowell reach his goal.

“I can’t put into words how much I love football,” McDowell said. “It’s been there since I was born. Shortly after I was born, my dad put a football in my hands.”

Oliver McDowell Jr.
East St. Louis senior linebacker and defensive back Oliver McDowell Jr., flanked by parents Oliver McDowell Sr. and Temia Rice, signs his national letter of intent Wednesday morning to play football at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. McDowell Jr. was surrounded by many of his Flyers teammates. David Wilhelm/BND

McDowell appreciated the support of his teammates, coach Darren Sunkett and a handful of Flyers assistant coaches who attending the signing.

“It was different (being at East St. Louis), but it was for the best,” Anderson said. “It’s more like a family here. I was in the weight room the first day with those guys. We’ve been working since January to November. It’s almost been a year. They’re like my brothers.”

McDowell, a strong safety and linebacker, recorded 97 tackles and led East St. Louis (10-2) with 13 sacks. He said the Salukis were consistent in their recruiting, which made them his obvious choice.

“They offered me sometime in the spring,” McDowell said. “Since then, they’ve been in contact. It hasn’t just been my recruiting coach. It’s been every coach from A to Z that has contacted me and stayed in touch and showed the love.”

McDowell said the Salukis are thinking about using him at outside linebacker, but versatility is one of his strengths.

“If there’s a position open, I’ll play that, too,” McDowell said. “I just want to play and I want to win. I’ll just keep putting in the work and make sure I soak in everything my coaches stress to me. I’ll keep my head on straight when I’m on campus.”

Sunkett expects McDowell to fit in nicely in Carbondale.

“He can play on the back end because he’s athletic enough, and he’s also big enough to play in the box at a (weak-side) linebacker,” Sunkett said. “With his versatility, it just depends on what their needs are and how they plan on utilizing him. He’s a big, physical player who can move and run.”

Salukis coach Nick Hill called McDowell “just really a playmaker.” McDowell was one of 15 to sign with SIUC.

Those guys who can pick the system up like that and make the calls that you need made, those guys are hard to find. Oli’s that type of kid. He knows every position on the field, whether it’s his or someone else’s.

Darren Sunkett, East St. Louis football coach

“If he didn’t lead the St. Louis area in sacks, he was right up there,” said Hill, adding that McDowell verbally committed to the Salukis before the season began. “We know what type of program Coach Sunkett has at East St. Louis. We had two players this past year who were seniors — Markese Jackson and Kyron Watson — that come from that program. We know how they play. They play physical. They just are trained to be physical football players when they come from that program. They’re used to winning.”

Hill credited McDowell’s attention to the academic side of being a student athlete.

“Oliver is actually going to be enrolled in classes in the spring and will go through spring ball,” Hill said, noting McDowell’s early graduation. “That says a lot about the kid that Oliver is. He has a great ACT score. He’s graduating early. We’re fired up about Oliver.”

Sunkett said McDowell’s football IQ separates him from many players.

“Those guys who can pick the system up like that and make the calls that you need made, those guys are hard to find,” Sunkett said. “Oli’s that type of kid. He knows every position on the field, whether it’s his or someone else’s. He knows how to get guys lined up, knows what they’re supposed to do and holds his teammates accountable. When you get a guy like that, you get a pretty good ballplayer.”

Sunkett said the new early signing period, which continues through Friday, was “different for me.” It was added by the NCAA early this year. The traditional national signing date will be Feb. 7.

“I’m still a fan of the one signing (date),” Sunkett said. “Football is a little bit different than every other sport. But things change. You’ve got to change with it. It’s going to hurt spring sports. With these kids leaving early, they’re not able to participate in track — or if they’re two-, three-sports guys.

“But it could be a great thing for football. We’ll see how it unfolds.”

Strong signs, too

Althoff senior Justin Strong, who previously gave a verbal commitment to SIU Carbondale, also signed his letter of intent Wednesday and became a Saluki.

Strong played running back and defensive back at Althoff (9-2), but likely focus on safety at SIUC.

The 6-2, 190-pound Strong rushed for 978 yards and 11 touchdowns and caught 18 passes for 156 yards and one TD. He had 43 tackles and six interceptions in the secondary.

Strong’s older brother, Bryson, is a linebacker for the Salukis who was redshirted as a freshman this season.

“I feel like I’ve done more home visits at the Strong residence than anyone ever in back-to-back years,” Hill said. “(Justin) comes from an awesome family. I talked about them a bunch last year. Great mom (Amy). Great family. Won a lot of games there at Althoff. His brother is going to be a great player here, and Justin has that same makeup in terms of work ethic. He’s taller and plays a different position.”