Two years ago in preseason camp, Jake Kolbe was asked if Illinois State head coach Brock Spack had officially named named him Tre Roberson's backup at quarterback.
"Coach likes to keep us on our toes, so no, nothing official," Kolbe said at the time.
Last week's ISU media day at Hancock Stadium brought different answers.
“This is Jake’s team now," Spack said. "Last year he was still in that process of trying to lead but trying to get his own game in place. It’s a whole different Jake. I think he’s in a good place right now.”
A year ago, Kolbe took over the starting job as a redshirt sophomore. He threw for 2,703 yards and 22 touchdowns despite being hampered by a shoulder injury.
Kolbe, who led Naperville Central to the Class 8A state championship as a high school senior, feels he has made the necessary improvements to take the next step as a college quarterback.
“I’m so much more comfortable with everything,” Kolbe said.
Kolbe ramped up the process off the field, adding 20 pounds to boost his weight to 220 pounds.
"Personally, I made some real gains in the weight room," he said. "I’m working really hard to continue that. Everyone on our team is working hard to get better each day."
Kolbe credited Jim Lathrop, ISU director of strength and conditioning.
"He has worked hard with me the past four years and it’s finally starting to pay off," Kolbe said. "We’ve switched some things about how I eat off the field. All that should pay off during the season."
A year ago, Kolbe helped lead the Redbirds to their school record third straight playoff appearance. If ISU is to return to postseason play, it must overcome the graduated losses of leading receiver Anthony Warrum and a senior-dominated offensive line.
For the Redbirds to have success, their young replacements must continue to improve as the back-heavy schedule plays out. ISU's final four games feature three teams that made the playoffs in 2016. In addition, those three schools--North Dakota State, South Dakota State and Youngstown State--were the top three teams in this year's Missouri Valley Football Conference preseason poll.
"The good news is that these kids (offensive linemen) have been there, it's not like they're coming in the door for the first time," Spack said. "Some of them have been backups; some of them have played prominent roles as rotational players. There are some guys coming off their redshirt years. If you looked out there today (at practice) three of five (offensive lineman) were (redshirt) freshmen."
Kolbe said, "I’ve very confident. They’re guys I came in with so it’s cool finally getting to play with them. Coach (Dan) Clark works them really hard and we’re seeing the results."
ISU radio analyst Ted Schmitz, who coached at both the collegiate and professional level, likes Kolbe's athleticism.
"He's at his best when he's on the move," Schmitz said.
Spack is thrilled to have Kolbe, a player who had scholarship offers from FBS programs the likes of Central Michigan and Toledo, for two more seasons.
"After the Northwestern game last year (a 9-7 ISU win) I thought, 'wow, we've got a dandy now'. He made some big-time throws. I thought he outperformed the other guy (NU quarterback Clayton Thorson) who they're talking about being a first team All Big Ten quarterback," Spack said. "I talked to several (quarterback) coaches in the Big Ten that called me and they said, 'That guy is a good player.'
"Unfortunately for him, he got hurt and that slowed down his progress. But that's football."
With his added weight and strength, Kolbe has also added confidence.
"He's in a much better place now. This is truly his team. You could see it this summer; he took control of this team," Spack said. "It's a whole different Jake right now. He will not run as fast as Tre Roberson, but we may never see a player who runs like Tre again, but Jake runs well enough and Jake is a very good player. He throws the ball very well and has a good brain. He's very good at the quick game. His arm strength has improved. "
Illinois State opens its season by hosting Butler Sept. 2 at Hancock Stadium. Kickoff is at 6:30 p.m.