College Football

Leathernecks out to prove doubters wrong

By Herald-Whig
Posted: Aug. 27, 2018 7:45 am

MACOMB, Ill. -- So much changed during the offseason that college football analysts wonder if Western Illinois University will be competitive in the Missouri Valley Football Conference.

The Leathernecks, though, aren't curious at all.

"We know who we are, and we know we'll come out prepared and confident," senior defensive lineman Khalen Saunders said. "We're loaded and ready to compete every week."

WIU was picked seventh in the MVFC preseason, largely because of the turnover that has taken place.

Charlie Fisher resigned after two seasons as head coach to join the staff at Arizona State, and Jared Elliott was promoted from co-offensive coordinator and assistant head coach to running his own program for the first time.

On top of that, the Leathernecks graduated a stellar class that saw three players participate in NFL camps this fall. Most notably, All-American and Buck Buchanan Award finalist Brett Taylor is no longer the anchor of the defense. The linebacker, a Macomb native, now is in camp with the Minnesota Vikings.

The task of being the stalwart in the middle falls to senior Quentin Moon.

"My role is to lead this defense the best I can vocally and with action," said Moon, who had 70 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions last season. "I want to be the best linebacker I can for this team."

The return of safety Justin Fitzpatrick and Saunders, a preseason All-American candidate, bolsters the defense. Fitzpatrick had a team-leading five interceptions last season, while Saunders piled up 12 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.

"For our line, going against a guy like Khalen Saunders and Shabar (Wilson) and Pete Swenson every day, that's going to make them better," senior quarterback Sean McGuire said. "For me, watching that every day and for us competing, it's building that unity, and we're taking a lot of strides every day."

McGuire and running back Steve McShane both received preseason second-team All-MVFC honors. McGuire is in his third season as a starter. He threw for 2,852 yards and 25 touchdowns last season, completing 64 percent of his passes with just seven interceptions. McShane had 639 yards rushing and seven touchdowns last season and is equally dangerous as a kick returner.

The challenge for the Leathernecks will be getting the young players around them up to speed quickly.

"There were a lot of young guys who really got better in a short period of time, and that was really encouraging," Elliott said when talking about fall camp. "We'll see how it plays out here, but there are some younger guys that we might end up asking to help us early, and that's always a pleasant surprise. I also was really encouraged about our depth in some positions.

"There's no doubt there were some good surprises with some of our players that we needed to see really step up into some roles."

WIU at a glance

Coach: Jared Elliott (first season).

2017 record: 8-4 (5-3 Missouri Valley Football Conference).

Returning starters:

Offense -- QB Sean McGuire, 6-3, 228, Sr.; RB Steve McShane, 5-8, 185, Sr.; FB Larry Harleston, 5-10, 226, Sr.; WR Brandon Gaston, 6-2, 185, Jr.; WR Isaiah LeSure, 6-3, 180, Sr.

Defense -- DL Khalen Saunders, 6-2, 310, Sr.; LB Quentin Moon, 6-2, 232, Sr.; LB Pete Swenson, 6-3, 230, Sr.; LB Riggs Baxter, 6-1, 215, Sr.; CB Xavier Rowe, 6-0, 190, Sr.; FS Justin Fitzpatrick, 6-1, 200, Sr.

Key losses: LB Brett Taylor, WR Jaelon Acklin, OL Jacob Judd.

Schedule: Aug. 30 at Montana State, 8 p.m.; Sept. 8 at Illinois, 6:30 p.m.; Sept. 15 vs. Montana, 3 p.m.; Sept. 29 vs. Youngstown State, 3 p.m.; Oct. 6 at Illinois State, 2 p.m.; Oct. 13 vs. North Dakota State, 6 p.m.; Oct. 20 at Missouri State, 2 p.m.; Oct. 27 vs. Northern Iowa, 1 p.m.; Nov. 3 at Southern Illinois, 1 p.m.; Nov. 10 at South Dakota, 1 p.m.; Nov. 17 vs. Indiana State, 1 p.m.