Strong brothers keep 10th-ranked SIU Salukis running at top speed
Thursday at 1:53 pm
For several minutes after last week’s victory against Youngstown State, Bryson Strong transitioned from linebacker to tech guru, helping a Southern Illinois University athletics department staff member tackle the postgame press conference settings on Zoom.
Just as he does on the field, Strong put his leadership skills on display to diagnose the issue, offer advice, then show off a bright smile to the media.
Between Bryson and his younger brother, Justin, a sophomore running back for SIU, there’s been plenty to smile about this season.
When the 10th-ranked Salukis (3-1) host No. 4 Northern Iowa (2-1) at noon Saturday (ESPN+), Bryson Strong will be making his 10th consecutive start at middle linebacker dating back to 2019.
“He’s just relentless,” SIU head coach Nick Hill said. “If you come to the games or are standing on the sidelines, you just feel the passion that (number) 31 plays with.”
In his first season at running back, Justin Strong has been a reliable part of a three-back rotation with sophomores Javon Williams Jr. and Romier Elliott. But the first impression he made on coaches was as a safety in 2019.
“Justin’s got a bright future around here,” Hill said. “Pound for pound, he might be the best athlete on our team. He’s 215 pounds, explosive, really strong in the weight room. We had to get him more involved.”
Growing up in Fairview Heights, Ill., in the St. Louis metro area, the Strong brothers – who are 23 months apart in age — spent plenty of time on the football field together.
“We played with each other a lot,” Justin Strong said. “When I was younger, I played up with him.”
They had successful careers at Belleville’s Althoff Catholic High School, which has had only four losing seasons since 2000, according to IHSA.org.
But Bryson Strong, at 5-foot-10, didn’t earn rave reviews for his physical skills from most college recruiters.
“Too short. Didn’t run a fast 40 (yard dash) at any camps,” Hill said. “We took him on scholarship. It was that it factor, that leadership. When you’re around Bryson Strong, there’s just a sense that you want this guy on your team.”
Off to Carbondale
When he arrived at SIU, Bryson Strong’s goals were simple.
“I wanted to be known as the guy that gave 110%, no matter what we were doing,” he said.
Coming from a winning high school program gave him a perspective on how to change SIU’s trajectory from a 6-16 record in his first two years on campus.
“That’s just being consistent and dominating the details every day,” he said.
His persistence paid off when he took over a starting job in mid-2019, during which SIU posted a 7-5 record and narrowly missed the FCS playoffs.
During the Salukis’ five-game winning streak against Missouri Valley Football Conference opponents, Bryson Strong led the team in tackles three times and ended the season as SIU’s fourth-leading tackler.
“I feel really comfortable with our coaching staff,” said Bryson Strong, who credited defensive coordinator Jason Petrino for his strong play. “Since Coach Petrino has been here, I’ve taken that next step in my game. We’re always on the same page.”
Against Youngstown State last week, Bryson Strong had nine tackles, a sack and forced a fumble in the fourth quarter as SIU was trying to protect its 30-22 lead.
He also has proven to be on the same wavelength as his teammates, including his younger brother.
“Bryson is the best big brother you could ask for and he’s the best leader you’re going to get,” Justin Strong said. “He’s on another level of smarts, and he plays with a different type of aggression.”
For Bryson Strong, leading others is not something he takes lightly.
“I feel like for you to be able to be a talker and a motivator for other people, you also have to be a doer,” he said. “You’ve definitely got to show that you’re capable of doing the work before opening your mouth out there.”
Back in the backfield
A two-way player in high school, Justin Strong opened plenty of eyes as a running back and defensive back.
“He can just do anything for you,” Bryson Strong said. “In his senior year, when I was here (in Carbondale), it seemed like he’d get two picks and three or four touchdowns every game.”
Justin Strong’s first exposure to college football, though, was on defense at SIU, where he worked in the same position group as Jeremy Chinn, who went on to finish second in NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year voting this season with the Carolina Panthers.
Hill said the team’s strength and conditioning staff even compares Justin Strong favorably to Chinn in terms of “pure athleticism.”
As the 2019 season wound down, Justin Strong found himself working at safety along with helping out as a scout team running back.
“I’ve played running back my while life,” he said. “(The coaches) liked what they were seeing. They asked after the season, ‘Do you want to play safety or do you want to play offense?’ Ever since then, I never looked back.”
While Williams and Elliott take the bulk of the workload, Justin Strong has shined in the spring season as an added weapon in the offense.
Over the past two games, he has 17 touches (13 carries, four receptions). Seven of those touches have resulted in first downs, while one was a touchdown catch.
“The way we all feel is we’re all three starting running backs,” he said. “My role is that whenever I need to go in and make a play, I’m going to make the play.”
Having three quality backs also has strengthened the SIU defense.
“In the Missouri Valley, we see a lot of good running backs every week, and I feel like I go against some of the best of them every practice,” Bryson Strong said. “That absolutely helps my game.”
Going back to running back has been a positive on and off the field for Justin Strong, who is averaging 4.2 yards per carry.
“He’s found that love for playing running back again,” Bryson Strong said. “He’s happy. He’s coming home smiling. I think his role is going to keep expanding with the success he’s having.”