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Mar. 02, 2010 - David Nestoff

Southern Illinois' Karim full steam ahead

Deji Karim is a feature back. He was the main offensive motor for a team that started the season unranked, but then climbed to number one in the country. His 1,694 rushing yards lead the nation and his 20 touchdowns ranked second. Yet, Karim is just a blip on the NFL radar.

That’s because Karim plays for the Southern Illinois Salukis, a member of the Football Championship Subdivision.

His name is only whispered, far from the ravings of the likes of C.J. Spiller or Jonathan Dwyer.
Before the 2009 season, few had heard of the running back, and even fewer had reason to venture to the campus in Carbondale, Illinois to see him.

But as time wore on, the reasons to come and see the Saluki’s leading rusher grew. In the second game of the season, Karim put up 210 yards. That started a streak of five consecutive 100-yard games; he topped the century mark in nine of Southern Illinois’ 13 games. In 10 of those games, he found the end zone.

And then the accolades came. Karim was named the Missouri Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Year, received multiple All-American selections and was even one of three finalists for the Walter Payton Award, the FCS version of the Heisman Trophy.

Despite one fantastic season, there are still question marks.

The first is how to gage Karim’s talents against those of the running backs who played in the FBS, against stiffer defenses and harder competition. The second is weighing his amount of success. Being a junior college transfer and only getting one full year as a starter, Karim had a limited amount of time to showcase his talents.

“I think one thing with Deji that’s probably hurting him is his year happened in one year,” SIU Head Coach Dale Lennon said. “I think his numbers impressed people, but they [in the NFL] are looking for a body of work, so there is more of a question mark.”

Karim has the right combination for a running back, Lennon said. He is stronger than his 5-11, 205-pound frame would indicate, and his balance is equally as impressive.

Considering his size and one large injury in 2008, the biggest concern for a transition to the next level might be durability, according to analyst Matthew Marino. Karim missed the entire 2008 season after a knee injury forced him to apply for a medical redshirt.

His ability to catch wasn’t on display much during the season because of the Saluki’s tendency to pass the ball downfield, but Karim has a confident set of hands.

He just has to show that to everyone else.

And in these winter months, he has to chip away at the stigma that comes with playing at the FCS level.
“We get looked past in a way,” Karim said of playing in the FCS. “At the same time if you show your talent, they’ll find you.”