‘Necks hope to stay with opening night trend

Jeff Reynolds

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As they prepare to open the season against Division II opponent St. Cloud State University, the Leathernecks carry a No. 13 national ranking from the Sports Network (No. 7 ESPN/USA Today) and a bulls-eye on their backs after winning the Gateway Football Conference last season.Excitement is in the air as the ‘Necks prepare to begin the season at home tomorrow night, a place they’ve been very successful in the past. Last season they trounced Eastern Illinois University 42-0, and members of the team have scored as many as 86 points on opening night, three years ago against Iowa Wesleyan University.

The Huskies hope to become the exception to the rule tomorrow night, led by quarterback Jon Miller. Miller completed 155 of 283 passes last season for more than 2,000 yards and 14 touchdowns, 10 of which landed in the outstretched arms of wideout Mike McKinney.

McKinney caught 73 passes and gained 1,145 yards, earning him consideration for the Harlon Hill Award, the Division II equivalent to the Walter Payton Award.

McKinney was an All-American choice by Don Hansen’s Football Gazette last season and was an all-North Central Conference selection.

The Huskies finished 6-5 last season, 5-4 in the conference, good for fifth in the NCC.

“They’re a multi-dimensional offensive football team,” head coach Randy Ball said. “They have a big tight end and big offensive lineman and also return most of their offensive and defensive starters. It should be an interesting game.”

The focal point of SCSU’s veteran defense will be to stop preseason All-American running back Aaron Stecker. The ‘Necks senior running back injured his knee last week during a scrimmage, a mild sprain, which could be playable tomorrow night.

“I really felt that he could play if that’s what we need him to do,” Ball said. “I’m not sure if that’s in Aaron’s best interest; we’ll decide that Wednesday.”

If Stecker isn’t used as the starting running back, the ‘Necks would then turn to junior Erik Rogers. Rogers averaged better than 5 yards per carry last season in limited action, including several carries against McNeese State University in the second round of the playoffs.

“Erik is an outstanding running back,” Ball said. “We would be extremely confident putting Erik in there and knowing he could do the job.”

A definite starter for the ‘Necks is junior quarterback Mark Zanders, who will make the first start of his college career. Last season Zanders was the third on the depth chart at quarterback and attempted just one pass which was incomplete. Zanders is a huge quarterback at 6-feet-3-inches and 225 pounds and is backed up by 6-foot-4 inch, 210-pound freshman Jim Miller, a transfer from Purdue University.

“We feel like he can get it done,” Ball said of Zanders. “He’s going to be the guy we look to make plays out there. We’re not the kind of team that will just change quarterbacks to be making a quarterback change.”

Zanders will be looking to connect with a new cast of receivers. Only senior Kevin Walsh has a lot of game experience, but athleticism won’t be a problem at this position.

“Anthony Thompson and Brock Smith are both very good receivers,” Ball said. “They don’t have as much experience as Kevin, but they all have the ability to make plays for us.”

Defensively, the ‘Necks return a majority of starters from a year ago, including leading tackler senior James Milton.

“There’s no question these guys will be one of our strengths,” Ball said. “Any time you have a lot of returning starters it is obviously a benefit to the entire team.”

One player the ‘Necks will be without is linebacker Ty Locatelli, who recently announced he would miss the entire season after aggravating a neck injury he suffered last season.

Locatelli hopes to continue his involvement with the football program, serving as a student coach and working with the ‘Neck linebackers. After recently being elected a captain of this year’s squad, Locatelli was forced to hang it up.

“His health is much more important than any football game or football season,” Ball said. “The decision was made by Ty, his parents, the WIU training staff and myself. We felt that it was in his best interest, health-wise, that he not take any chances that would jeopardize him for the rest of his life.”

With a win tomorrow night and two additional victories, Ball has the opportunity to become the winningest football coach in WIU history.

“We have to be successful as a team,” Ball said. “The individual things are of less importance, and the accolades mean nothing if we aren’t successful as a team first.

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