A 5-1 start and a top-10 national ranking in October was a memory by November for Illinois State’s football team.
A gauntlet of the top four finishers in the Missouri Valley Football Conference doomed the Redbirds’ hopes of a return to the FCS playoffs.
Since appearing in the national championship game after the 2014 season, ISU has a 1-2 playoff record and missed the playoffs the past two seasons.
With third-team All-American running back James Robinson entering his senior season in 2019, along with blossoming quarterback Brady Davis and some young defensive talent, the Redbirds have a solid nucleus. But they need to find more late-season success, especially on the road.
Here are five burning questions about the Redbirds for 2019:
What happened to the depth at running back?
ISU head coach Brock Spack mentioned his team’s “four-headed monster” at running back early in the season.
But as the calendar flipped through the 2018 campaign, junior James Robinson carried a much heavier load.
Robinson’s 205 carries yielded an impressive 1,290 yards and 12 touchdowns during a terrific season.
Fellow junior Markel Smith had 93 carries on the season, but only one game with double-digit attempts in the last month of the season. He had no carries in the season finale against Youngstown State.
Sophomore Jordan Birch got 14 carries before leaving the team in October. He announced on Twitter Dec. 9 that he had transferred to Emporia State in his home state of Kansas.
Senior Nick Kielbasa got eight carries in the season-opening game, but six the remainder of the season.
The Redbirds need a reliable No. 2 back to take some of the load off the ultra-productive Robinson.
Will fresh faces keep ISU’s defense at the top of the MVFC?
The Redbirds were the No. 2 scoring and overall defense in the conference, behind powerhouse North Dakota State.
Four new faces are certain to be a big part of ISU’s future.
Along the defensive line, sophomore Romeo McKnight transferred from Iowa and led the team in sacks (three), tackles for loss (nine) and quarterback hurries (11). Fellow defensive end Jason Lewan had three tackles for loss and three pass breakups as a redshirt freshman.
At nose tackle, first-time starter John Ridgeway, a redshirt freshman, had 30 tackles and helped ISU hold opponents to the second-lowest rushing average among MVFC defenses.
True freshman cornerback Charles Woods broke up three passes as ISU allowed only 183 yards passing a game.
The four newcomers should play key roles again in 2019 as the defense loses only two starters to graduation.
Against the MVFC’s best, will slow starts be a memory?
In games against the conference’s top four teams – North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Indiana State and Northern Iowa – the Redbirds were outscored by a combined 89-20 in the first half.
Not surprisingly, ISU’s record in those games was 0-4.
To get back among the MVFC’s best, the Redbirds must be able to trade punches with the league heavyweights, especially on the road.
ISU has a top-shelf quarterback in Davis and an elite running back in Robinson, so keeping up with the league’s top offenses shouldn’t be as big of a challenge as it was this season.
Where do the Redbirds turn in the kicking game?
J.T. Bohlken was solid as ISU’s punter. He averaged 43.1 yards and nearly one third of his punts ended up inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
Pulling double duty as a placekicker, however, wasn’t as successful.
Bohlken made four of his eight field-goal attempts this season. He was 1-for-5 from beyond 30 yards. The team’s second placekicker, Sam Fenlason, was 3-for-7 this season and had one kick blocked.
Recruiting another kicker would take some stress off of Bohlken’s leg so he can focus on punting.
Has ISU found its next Spencer Schnell?
The next version of ISU’s departing leader among the wide receivers was a quick study this season.
Redshirt freshman Andrew Edgar led the team with 17 yards per catch and scored four touchdowns. His 44 receptions were second on the team.
With Schnell and his 175 career catches graduating, Edgar slides into the No. 1 spot. He will need a couple other wide receivers to make the same leap into key contributors.
The top candidate likely will be Braxton Haley, who caught 19 passes and a junior this season.