The above photo is a common one in the college football recruiting world. Talented player dons a jersey with a preferred number and he and the prospective head coach put their arms around one another and smile for the camera.
That particular picture shows a Decatur (Ind.) Central High School standout named Bryce Jefferson, who was a four-year varsity letterwinner. He's a versatile athlete who threw for more than 2,000 yards as a prep senior while running for nearly 1,400 on the ground. Jefferson was all-conference and all-state. He was a proven winner with four straight league titles and the most wins in his high school's history. In short, exactly the type of player Illinois State head coach Brock Spack wanted.
Fast forward to last Saturday in Cape Girardeau, Mo. for Illinois State's opening-round playoff game against Southeast Missouri State. Jefferson, who redshirted in 2018, is making his first career collegiate start. He's a week removed from a dismal 2-for-7 passing performance that produced just 23 yards and an interception and two sacks in a 21-3 loss at Youngstown State.
The Redbirds' offense — at one time the FCS leader in red zone efficiency — seems lost without veteran quarterback Brady Davis, who was felled by injury in a Nov. 15 against Missouri State (a game ISU squeezed out a 17-12 win). Jefferson and true freshman Jack Baltz have struggled, going a combined 3-for-19 for 30 yards and four interceptions in two games.
That was then, this is now
But, seven days and a week of practices have produced a different quarterback and a different result. A more confident Jefferson has emerged. He's more sure of himself and his team.
"Bryce is very calm," Spack said at Tuesday's ISU press conference. "He has a calm and soothing personality. I wish he was a little more on edge sometimes . . . "
It was ISU that had the edge last weekend, cruising past Southeast Missouri State 24-6 and into the second round of the playoffs. The offensive line opened holes for All-American tailback James Robinson who rambled for a school-record 297 yards on 41 carries.
And Jefferson was poised running the Redbird offense. With Robinson gashing the SEMO defense, Jefferson and ISU have little reason to put the ball in the air. Jefferson passed just seven times, completing four for 52 yards.
Yet, one throw illustrates how much the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Jefferson has grown. With just 85 seconds left before halftime, he delivered a perfectly thrown spiral that found receiver Andrew Edgar streaking down the middle of the field and into the end zone for a 33-yard touchdown. The TD gave the Redbirds a commanding 21-3 lead.
That play also capped a quarter that began with Jefferson breaking away for a 16-yard touchdown run at the 14:04 mark.
Spack praised Jefferson for "managing the offense 1, (and) 2 he threw the ball well."
The head coach then added, "He made good decisions throwing the ball and getting us in the right plays in the running game. I was thrilled to see him use the tight end (former Naperville North standout Mitchell Lewis who started in place of the injured Tanner Taula) a little bit and then he made a really nice pass with somebody in his face to Edgar in the back of the end zone."
Offensive lineman Drew Himmelman told Prairie State Pigskin, "Obviously Bryce is really good athlete, so having him back there is really good for our offense because they had to respect his running game as well as James. They couldn't just have all eyes on James."
Spack, Jefferson and the Redbirds play at No. 8 national seed Central Arkansas Saturday. Kickoff is 2 p.m.
Redbird news & notes
For the second straight week, Trenton Hatfield will serve as Jefferson's backup. Hatfield, a backup safety and special teams stalwart, came to ISU as a highly touted quarterback recruit in 2017 after a standout career at Muncie (Ind.) Central High School in which he set school career records for total yards (7,062), passing yards (5,503) and total touchdowns (57) . . . Baltz would only be used in an extreme emergency situation as he has already reached the maximum number of games played to maintain his redshirt season status . . . Courtesy of the ISU athletic website game notes, from 2012 to 2016 Illinois State made the playoffs in four of five seasons including three trips to the FCS quarterfinals and a trip to the 2014 FCS National Championship game. However, the Redbirds posted back-to-back 6-5 seasons in 2017 and 2018 and the goal was for the team to get back to the postseason in 2019. Thanks an 8-4 overall record and a 5-3 mark in the always-tough Missouri Valley Football Conference during the regular season, ISU accomplished one of its goals and was selected as an at-large participant in the FCS playoffs.