New faces look to lead Leathernecks to big season

Brendan Reidy, Courier Staff

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MACOMB, Ill. — The Western Illinois Fighting Leathernecks had a solid season a year ago under first year head coach, Jared Elliott. The team went 5-6 overall, and 4-4 in the very tough Missouri Valley Conference. Their season came to a heartbreaking end when Indiana State defeated the Leathernecks on a game-winning field goal that crushed any FCS Playoff hopes.

This year, the team will look to rebound as they begin the second year of Elliott’s Tenure. The Purple and Gold will face a tough challenge replacing key cogs in their lineup after losing seniors Sean McGuire, Khalen Saunders, Zeke Lesure and Pete Swenson. With lots of holes to fill, the team will be led by a variety of new faces.

Players we should expect to step up for the Leathernecks are QB Conor Sampson, DB Andre Whitley, WR Tony Tate and WR George Wahee. Sampson looks to be the apparent heir to McGuire. Even though he has not been announced as the week one starter yet, all signs are pointing him to be the man under center week one. He was recently selected as one of the five captains for the upcoming season and has the most experience out of any quarterbacks in camp. Even though he has yet to start a game during his time at Western, he has been the backup to McGuire the last three seasons. He has shown signs that he can be “the guy” for the Leathernecks, and more notably shown that against the best team in the country a season ago. Against No. 1 ranked North Dakota State, he completed a career high four passes, including the longest pass of his career at 39 yards. He has big shoes to fill being McGuire’s heir, but he is the right man for the job.

On the defense, Whitley is a name to keep an eye on. He played plenty of minutes a season ago, but expect him to take on a big role after the departure of Xavier Rowe. Whitley should have no problem sliding into the top corner spot this season. What makes Whitley so intriguing is that he can play anywhere in the secondary and can be put wherever you like. His versatility is something that is valued at every level of the sport, and expect him to have a big season being one of the top dogs in the secondary.

Two other players to lookout for this season are Tate and Wahee. Both played big roles in the offense last season, but unfortunate injuries kept them sidelined periodically throughout the season. Wahee is an exceptional route runner and good possession receiver that was missed greatly last season. As for Tate, he can do just about anything for this offense. He is a literal human joystick and can make you miss all over the field. He is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses because he is the deep threat on the team, and requires the attention of every opposing defensive back.

Despite another rigorous schedule, the team has a lot of potential to do damage in the FCS. Their toughest matchups this year will be on the road against FBS opponent Colorado State University, and North Dakota State at the Fargo Dome. Coach Elliott and Co. have their hands full this season, but they have an exciting roster that can make a playoff run this season. Leathernecks open up on the road this Thursday at North Alabama.

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