DECATUR — The Millikin football team is still grieving the death of David Jackson, a sophomore wideout who died tragically earlier this month stemming from a near-drowning in his home state Missouri.
Just one thing was clear before tonight's season-opener against Greenville College.
“We'll honor him in our own way before the game, but I think the best way to honor David is just to play our butts off,” Millikin coach Dan Gritti said.
The Big Blue has responded to Jackson's death by banding together. A source of their inspiration has been safety Daniel Jackson, David's twin brother, who remained with the team and intends to play tonight, Thursday, Aug. 31.
“We're glad he's still part of the football team and I'm happy for his opportunity to go out Thursday and show everyone how good of a football player he is,” Gritti said.
When they take the field for the first time, it will be at least be a temporary respite.
“This is one of the tightest group of players I've ever been around," Gritti said. "I think lots of people throw the word 'family' around when it's referring to a football program. I think it truly applies to us and as a result, we've gathered strength through each other and we're going to go out Thursday and show everyone what we have to offer.”
Millikin showed glimpses of promise and went 4-6 in Gritti's first year as coach in 2016.
Much of the roster is still young, but it belies the amount of experience on the field, including a number of sophomores with a year under their belt as starters.
That means Gritti and Co. have been able to expand their focus and broaden their playbook.
For three-year starting QB Nicco Stepina, it's reading coverages better.
Stepina believes he's continued to make strides as a more complete pocket passer after running a triple-option offense at Casey-Westfield.
Last year, the dual-threat QB set a school record with 2,467 passing yards and 22 TDs, but with 13 interceptions.
He doesn't plan on taking any more unnecessary hits when he scrambles out of the pocket either after enduring a rash of bumps and bruises.
“It would be easy for people to think of me as an athlete first because of my running abilities, but I've always put my pride on my quarterback ability,” Stepina said. “Some injuries made me stay in the pocket and we built our game plan around that. It helped me in my ability to read defenses.”
A more uptempo offense will complement Stepina's repertoire, with Gritti bringing on board new offensive coordinator Mike Budziszewski.
It will be a no-huddle offense that will sling it around and get the ball to players in open space.
“We're excited about the opportunity now with a little bit more depth to be able to do more tempo,” Gritti said, “which we think we are particularly well suited for.”
But Gritti said the offense needs to do a better job running the ball and scoring in the red zone than last year, with experienced sophomore George Jimerson Jr. getting the nod at running back.
On defense, it's about getting off the field quicker.
Millikin struggled to hold teams on third downs and gave up 31.6 points per game last fall.
Sophomore linebacker Matt Brown believes the defensive unit will be up to the task with more bulk and physical strength.
Brown recalled getting tossed to the ground by an interior lineman last year, but now he's 20 pounds heavier and better prepared than he was then.
“You don't realize the level of ability and competitiveness that is in this conference,” said Brown, who played fullback and safety at Champaign Central. “I think the perception was, 'Oh, I can go and play D-III football. I mean, come on, really?' You get in the conference and I was sitting there last year watching Augustana, 'Wow, I'm probably the smallest linebacker in this conference.'”
He certainly expects a more sound defensive group this time around.
“It makes the job a lot easier for us as linebackers to see holes when they're clogging up in the middle and they're doing their job,” Brown said of the defensive line. “It makes it easier for us to get tackles. I'm excited for us as a group. We've had a lot of experience and I think there were three or four freshmen that played last year and saw a bunch of reps.
“The only way you get better is you get more reps.”