Daniel Santacaterina takes first snaps as Southeast Missouri State football celebrates first fall practice
Football has become a year-round endeavor, but for those who love it, there's just something special about the first day of fall camp.
Southeast Missouri State held its first fall football practice Friday morning at the Rosengarten Athletic Complex, and coach Tom Matukewicz had some extra pep in his step as he patrolled the practice fields on what is a kind of personal holiday.
"After 28 of them you'd think I wouldn't be so excited, but I just am," Matukewicz said of the opening day of preseason practice. "When you do something you love, there's just something inside you that just tingles at the start of fall camp. That's what I told the guys: 'Do you know how blessed and fortunate we are? We get to play and coach the greatest game ever invented. And at a high level: Division I.'"
As the two-hour opening session came to a close, Matukewicz preached an "attitude of gratitude" to his players and coaching staff, and few had more to be grateful for than one of the faces that will feature most prominently during the next month of work leading up to the season opener Sept. 1 at Arkansas State.
For Northern Illinois transfer Daniel Santacaterina, Friday was a long time coming, after recovery from rotator cuff surgery kept the quarterback out for the entire spring (though he was with the team). For the junior newcomer, it was the first time he took a live snap since 2017.
"We had throwing two times a week in the summer just on our own, but there's nothing like getting out on the field and going live with the receivers and the full team," Santacaterina said. "So, yeah, it was really fun to get back out there. A little rusty, but it was a lot of fun for me to get back out there."
Quarterback is wide open following the graduation of starter Jesse Hosket, and as far as position battles go, none will have a bigger spotlight this preseason. The Redhawks return backup Anthony Cooper, who saw a handful of snaps a year ago, and also brought in sophomore junior college transfer Joe Pyle. But Pyle suffered a shoulder injury in the spring and joined Santacaterina on the sideline, forcing the coaching staff to wait until this month to really get an idea of what they have at the position.
Pyle remains limited, participating in practice Friday but taking only a handful of reps. True freshman Jacob Buie, who was not with the team in the spring, got a chance to be a regular part of the QB rotation during the first session.
It was an improvement over the end of the spring, when Cooper was the only QB currently with the team to make a pass.
But no one took more snaps Friday than Santacaterina, whose voice could be heard booming across the practice facility for much of the morning. That, Matukewicz said, is probably more important than any throw or read the quarterback could have made on Day 1.
"The thing that a quarterback needs is he needs the respect and the confidence of the team," Matukewicz said. "They should have got that June and July. If they don't have that already, they're in trouble. You get that by working. Shut up and work and earn the respect of your teammates, and I think all of them have, to be honest. I think Jeromy (McDowell, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach) has done a good job of developing that room. Now we've got to get them good at football, but I think they're doing a good job of leading."
Santacaterina said the coaches included a good chunk of the playbook right out of the gates, but he felt the staff helped to simplify the approach; and he was pleased with how he and the other QBs handled it.
"First day, I'm always just worried about making the right decisions," Santacaterina said. "I haven't taken any live reps in eight, nine months, so this is the first time I've been out here healthy. So it was (about) making good decisions, and from there everything will take care of itself.
"I just like to have fun. It's football. At the end of the day, you're out here having fun. That's the way I approach it, and I just like being around my teammates and the coaches. We've got long days in fall camp, but this two hours is really nice for us to get out and do what we've been waiting for."
Having three players from last year's defense in NFL camps this month is a point of pride for SEMO. But that leaves the task of replacing those individuals.
Two of those players -- Chad Meredith and Kendall Donnerson -- were stalwarts for a number of years for the Southeast linebacking corps, leaving holes at outside linebacker to fill. The Redhawks don't think that's going to be an issue.
"I feel like we're in a good spot," junior inside linebacker Zach Hall said. "We had a really deep D-line, and linebackers are really deep too. We [lost] a lot but I don't feel like we're taking a step back at all.
"Justin Swift, he came in a lot last year. He played a little bit and put up some big numbers when he was in. Marcus Goree is coming in. They have some big shoes to fill, but well have confidence in them and we know that they can do it."
Hall was the team's leading tackler a year ago with 79 stops and a team-high nine sacks, and returns to anchor things in the middle. The voids left by Donnerson and Meredith on the outside loom large, but junior Swift steps into the role after posting seven sacks a year ago despite only starting three games. And Goree, who will have every opportunity to claim the other side, is a senior.
"We lost a lot of really good players," Matukewicz said. "I don't think you replace a Mike Ford or a Kendall or Chad Meredith. Those guys are in NFL camp for a reason. But the thing we've been able to do here is play a lot of players. So the backup, for example, for Chad Meredith, is Swift. He's like No. 5 in the conference for sacks. You recover by recruiting. You've got to get the recruiting in the mix.
"I think our front seven is loaded, to be honest with you. It's kind of a no-name guy -- other than Zach Hall, you don't necessarily know all these guys -- but we're deep and we're good."
Part of a successful preseason camp is avoiding injuries, but some bumps and bruises are inevitable.
Friday saw senior offensive lineman Giovanni Negron go down, receiving treatment on his left lower leg before being carted off the practice field.
The 6-foot-3, 293-pounder played in all 11 games a year ago, with one start.
The severity of the injury was uncertain at the time practice concluded.