If this spring's practices are any indication, then Illinois State head coach Brock Spack has reason to believe his defense will be more than ready for the rigors of the Missouri Valley Football Conference schedule.
"The defense played well again today," Spack said following Saturday's Spring Showcase scrimmage at Hancock Stadium. "Our defense is pretty solid and will be even better next fall. It was a very good spring for us.”
Spack added that "our inside linebackers played really well" even without senior Tyree Horton, who sat out the scrimmage with an injury. Spack, in his 10th season as Redbirds' head coach, also lauded juniors Ty DeForest and DeMarco Washington, along with senior Zach Mathews, on their improvement this spring.
DeForest and defensive end Tuvone Clark each recorded seven tackles as their White team defeated the Red team 14-7 in Saturday's scrimmage to conclude spring practice.
The linebacking group is under the direction of former ISU player Travis Niekamp, who returned to Normal as the Redbirds' defensive coordinator this past offseason.
"Our front seven played really well," Spack said. "Our offense can run the ball and they (the defensive front) hung in there."
Junior Jason Harris is among those front seven, playing outside linebacker.
"I've definitely tried to work on my foot quickness and my change of direction," said the son of former Chicago Bear Al Harris. "We've got a lot of playmakers on our defense. We're really fast."
"We've got a lot of younger guys, but they're improving and we've got to keep doing that all the way into the season," said senior safety Mitchell Brees, the lone holdover from last year's starting lineup.
Jarrell Jackson, a sophomore from Marengo, is one of those younger defensive backs. Jackson intercepted ISU starting quarterback Jake Kolbe and picked up a 44-yard return to set up a touchdown Saturday.
"We made strides even though we were limited because of injuries," Jackson said. "We played this spring with only five defensive backs. We took a lot of reps. Some practices were really exhausting, but I think that paid off as a whole. We definitely got better."
Assistants who 'want what's best for the Redbirds'
Spack called this spring "tremendous, maybe the best I’ve had since I’ve been here. It’s been very good. I can’t remember a better one.”
Spack, a Rockford native, credited his revised coaching staff for much of that improvement.
"They (the assistants) want what's best for the Redbirds," Spack said. "That's what was missing a little bit. I felt it was more about personal agendas (by previous assistants) than it was about the agenda of Illinois State football . . . when you have an alum and a guy who has been here as a player and a coach, and a guy in (offensive line coach) Harold Etheridge who was here nine years (in the late 1990s) . . . having those guys here, it just means more to them. They've bled on this field."
The Redbirds' coaching roster is dotted with assistants with ties to ISU.
Niekamp was a defensive lineman at Illinois State (1994-1997) and then joined Todd Berry's staff as the Redbirds earned consecutive playoff spots in 1998 and '99. In 2000, he moved with Berry to West Point.
Outside linebackers coach Kye Stewart was a two-time All-Gateway Conference player who concluded his playing career as an All-American in 2007. That same season, he finished fourth in the voting for the Buck Buchanan Award, which is annually given to the top defensive player in FCS. Stewart played four seasons in the Canadian Football League.
Mike Banks, the assistant secondary coach, was a four-year letterwinner for ISU (2011-14) as a cornerback and started all 50 career games in which he was a Redbird.
Offensive coordinator Kurt Beathard has returned to ISU, a position he held 2014-15, presiding over two of the most successful offensive seasons in Illinois State football history. Beathard also coaches the quarterbacks.
Brian Hendricks, the defensive line coach, is a former Montana assistant where he worked alongside Niekamp. Although Brian Anderson did not play at ISU, the wide receivers coach began his career at Western Illinois and was on Jerry Kill's coaching staffs at Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois and Minnesota.
Holdovers on Spack's staff are Greg McLain and Cody Deti (seven years each at ISU) and Khenon Hall (four years). Director of Football Operations Alicia Mays is a former Purdue softball player and Spack's daughter. Quality control coach Nick Meyer earned an ISU degree.
The Redbirds head into the offseason, before starting their fall camp in August. The season opener is Sept. 1 against St. Xavier at Hancock Stadium.