Illinois State football has made tremendous strides since Brock Spack took over as head coach in 2009.
His resume is impressive: Four appearances in the FCS playoffs in the last five seasons and back-to-back Missouri Valley Football Conference championships in 2014-15; a berth in the national championship game; national rankings; two conference coach of the year awards and numerous player accolades.
"We're here to win championships," head coach Brock Spack said last week at ISU Media Day. "The good news is we have a history now. There is a culture that’s been built here.”
Yet, with success come raised expectations. Whereas once alumni and fans celebrated, now they want more. Beat writer Randy Reinhardt recently noted that the Redbirds have not won a playoff game since 2015 and missed the playoffs entirely last season. ISU's record over the past two seasons "stands at an uninspiring 12-11."
Though 1/3 of his team arrived on campus in June, Spack is excited for this season.
"This team has held itself to a high standard. If we don’t have a great practice, they seem to make the adjustment quickly,” said Spack. “That tells me they’re pretty intelligent, and they’re holding each other accountable as well.
"I would be surprised if this team isn’t drastically improved.”
A return to the playoffs?
Illinois State was picked to finish fifth in the Missouri Valley, viewed by many as the top FCS conference. The Redbirds are as high as 12th in the HERO Sports poll; ISU landed at No. 21 in the STATS FCS preseason rankings.
So, what will it take for Illinois State to return to the playoffs?
Spencer Schnell, the team's leading returning receiver, views ISU's success based upon the mental approach as much as the physical.
“We have to come out with a lot of energy and a good mindset and play disciplined football. We need to do what we do best and play every game the best we can play," the senior said.
Kurt Beathard was the Redbird offensive coordinator during its championship game run. He returned to the program this past offseason to again serve as Spack's coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
“We’re still young, but I told the offensive staff the other day from the steps we’ve come from the spring to now, I’m impressed," Beathard said. "We’re not there but any stretch, but we’re doing things that I was hoping we’d get better at and we have gotten better at them. We’ve got a great group of guys that like to be coached and want to get better. We’ve got the kind of young talent that’s got the potential to get better every week.
“With our offensive line, we’ve got the ability to run the ball at any time. If we’re going to run the ball, we’re going to play action. We can make all the throws with our quarterbacks. We can get the ball out in rhythm."
Senior Jake Kolbe (Naperville Central) enters fall camp as the No. 1 quarterback. His solution to a Redbird run to the postseason is simple.
“A lot of hard work," Kolbe said. "Our team knows what we’re supposed to do, work hard. If we keep doing what we’re doing right now, we’ll be a very good team because everyone is getting better every day whether that’s receiver, linemen, the quarterbacks offensively. I know the defense will be ready.”
That defense lost a number of key components, including NFL draft pick Davonte Harris and lineman Dalton Keene. Linebacker Tyree Horton was dismissed from the team earlier this year.
Safety Mitchell Brees returns as a preseason all-conference selection.
"I’ve grown into more of a leadership role with our younger defense. I’m realizing that this is my last shot and really putting everything into it, not that I didn’t before but this is the last time," Brees said.
His keys to a winning season?
“Playing together as a team on both sides of the ball. The little things that we got away from the last couple of years. The players my freshman year when we went to the national championship game were really set on their goals and made each other fundamentally sound," he said.
Former Barrington High School standout Jason Harris is also expected to step up his role as an outside defensive end.
"I'll lead by example mostly, but talk when I need to," said the son of former NFL star Al Harris.
“Consistency and great preparation. Approaching practice and workouts and meetings all the same way each week. Take the focus that we have to win each week. Don’t get ahead of yourself and think about the better teams (on the schedule) and look past others. We have to stay consistent with our mindset.”