David Pickard never imagined football would take him anywhere when he first decided to give the sport a try as an Oak Park High School freshman.
It was something he was just doing for fun back then. But when Southern Illinois took notice of him as an offensive tackle during his senior year, Pickard was caught by surprise.
“Throughout high school, I didn’t expect to play in college,” Pickard said. “Then this opportunity was here.”
The chance to play college football was too much for Pickard to pass on, so he allowed his career to continue. It’s a decision he and the Salukis are now benefitting from today.
Now a junior, the 6-5, 300-pound Pickard has developed into one of the country’s top FCS offensive linemen and a potential NFL draft pick.
“It’s definitely kind of crazy to hear my name thrown out like that,” Pickard said. “But I can’t think about it now. There’s so much more to focus on.”
Pickard’s immediate attention is on Southern Illinois’ meeting with Illinois in Champaign on Saturday. Aside from the Salukis getting to prove themselves against a FBS team, it’ll also be as close of a homecoming as the Oak Park native will likely get in his career.
“It’s exciting to go into an atmosphere like that any time, especially being from Chicago,” Pickard said. “Illinois has always been the team in the state. My parents come to every game, and a ton of friends are going to be there because they go to U of I.
“I would expect it’s going to be a battle. Any game like this, you know going into it that it’s going to be like that. We have to have the best mindset possible. If we do what we’re capable of, whatever the outcome is there won’t be any regrets.”
Southern Illinois has certainly never regretted taking a chance on Pickard. He redshirted his freshman year, became a starter the following year and has progressed ever since. Last season, he emerged as a premier FCS offensive tackle while helping Southern Illinois average 34 points per game.
What stood out to Southern Illinois’ coaches about Pickard from the start was his technical ability. Because he didn’t begin playing competitive football until he was a freshman in high school, he never had time to pick up bad habits. He was taught the right way from the start.
Pickard did have to learn to enjoy the game first, though.
“I actually hated it right away,” Pickard said. “It was kind of a culture shock to start playing on a competitive team. Luckily, I had really good coaches that taught me everything. It’s grown into something I love. I was taught a lot about technique and hard work.”
Oak Park coach Jim Nudera hasn’t been surprised by Pickard’s rise at Southern Illinois because of that work ethic. It was the same type of effort Pickard once played with for the Huskies.
“David was a very committed player who worked hard to make himself the player he is,” Nudera said. “David was determined to show that he belonged as a contributing player at the college level. I always felt a number of college programs looked past him. SIU made a good choice taking David.”
Southern Illinois coach Dale Lennon felt that way, too. He believed if Pickard had physically matured quicker, the Salukis would have missed out on him. Instead, Illinois or another FBS school would be reaping the rewards from his play.
“I think there’s a lot of players at the FCS level that can play at the FBS level,” Lennon said. “He was a little late in maturation and probably wasn’t recruited at the time. Since then, he’s really developed his game and now pro scouts are coming through and looking at him.
“He’s been very consistent in his improvement. He’s steadily gotten his game better. He’s continuing to do that. Over time, he’s become more physical. Now, he’s the full package. He really has blossomed into a quality offensive lineman.”