With spring practice behind them, Brock Spack's Illinois State Redbirds head into finals and summer set on returning to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs for a fourth straight year.
Next season will mark the ninth at ISU for Spack, a Rockford native who played and coached at Purdue. Illinois State has qualified for the FCS playoffs seven times; four have come under Spack.
"Brock Spack has moved this program forward in ways it has never been," said Ted Schmitz, an ISU assistant in the 1970s who has been the analyst on Redbird radio broadcasts since 2000.
The Redbirds held the annual spring game April 22 in Normal.
According a story on the ISU website by sports information director Mike Williams, the roster was "split into teams to compete in the annual Spring Showcase scrimmage at Hancock Stadium on a sunny, but windy afternoon."
The story further stated, "As has been the story for the majority of the spring, the defense had the upper hand on the offense, as just one touchdown was scored on the day at the Red squad came away with a 7-0 win over the White team. The White squad, which was comprised primarily of the first-team defense and second-team offense, was dominant with five sacks, 12 tackles-for-loss and an interception. Not to be outdone, the Red team, made up of the first-team offense and second-team defense, added a pair of sacks, five TFLs, and forced a pair of fumbles."
With redshirt junior Jake Kolbe returning for his second year as the starting quarterback, the ISU staff got a good look at backup Tristan Smith, a sophomore from Murphy, Texas. Smith, listed at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, completed 9-of-13 passes despite the windy conditions in the spring game.
Smith saw action in three games at quarterback as a true freshman last fall. When Kolbe was sidelined with an injury, Smith made first career start at Indiana State on Sept. 24. He finished the season 4-for-10 passing for 33 yards.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Ryan Guhl led all defenders with nine tackles for the Red team, including a pair of sacks with two forced fumbles that resulted in turnovers for his team. Guhl, listed at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, played his prep years at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis.
The Redbirds return an experienced secondary. Safety Mitchell Brees led the White team with seven tackles. Cornerback Davontae Harris, considered by many to be one of the top returning defensive backs in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, added five stops and registered a game-high 2.5 tackles-for-loss. Harris also broke up two passes.
Safety Luther Kirk intercepted Kolbe early in the scrimmage.
Home game times set
ISU has five home games on the 2017 schedule. The program has set the start times for those contests.
The 2017 season opener will take place Saturday, Sept. 2, when the Redbirds host Butler from the Pioneer League at 6:30 p.m. After a bye week, the Redbirds will then travel to face Eastern Illinois for the 106th meeting of the Mid-America Classic, which is set to be played on Sept. 16 at O'Brien Field in Charleston, Illinois. The game will continue the oldest FCS football rivalry in Illinois and the 13th-oldest at the FCS level, with the Redbirds leading the all-time series 54-42-9.
ISU will then begin MVFC play with a Sept. 23 contest at Missouri State, followed by a home game against Indiana State Sept. 30 for CommUniversity Day at 6:30 p.m. A road game at Northern Arizona in the Walkup Skydome will follow Oct. 7, with a road contest at Southern Illinois to take place the following week on Oct. 14. The 2017 Homecoming game against South Dakota will take place on Oct. 21 at 2 p.m., and will be followed by a trip to Youngstown State to end the month on Oct. 28.
The Redbirds will play two of their final three games at home, beginning on Nov. 4 against Western Illinois on Family Weekend at noon and ending on Nov. 18, when ISU hosts the Bison from North Dakota State on Senior Day at noon as well. A road contest at South Dakota State on Nov. 11 will round out the 2017 slate for the Redbirds.