Running back James Robinson is taking his immense talents to a potential pro career. Looking ahead to 2020, that leaves a big hole in the Illinois State offense.
Just how big? Robinson’s 364 carries this season were the second-most in ISU history, and he led the Missouri Valley Football Conference with 1,917 yards and 18 touchdowns. His 1,997 total yards this fall for the Redbirds (10-5) were 44 percent of the team’s offense and a big reason ISU advanced to the FCS quarterfinals.
The departure of the running back chosen to five postseason All-American teams – and the offensive production that must be replaced – is the biggest question looking ahead to the 2020 Illinois State football season.
Here are Prairie State Pigskin’s five burning questions facing the Redbirds:
- Who is the next lead back for Illinois State?
The obvious answer is Jeff Proctor, the shifty senior-to-be who suffered a season-ending knee injury late in the season – in the same game quarterback Brady Davis went down for the year. As the season wore on, Proctor earned several series per game and impressed with his quickness and lack of fear for running the ball between the tackles. Proctor averaged 4.2 yards per game but surprisingly caught only five passes all season out of the backfield, despite an ISU receiving corps that was without injured top wideout Andrew Edgar for a big portion of the season. Redshirt freshman running back Kevin Brown of East St. Louis had 22 carries this season, while true freshman Pha’leak Brown added nine. Unless the Redbirds bring in a transfer, they will be quite young at running back heading into 2020. ISU head coach Brock Spack has said for two years that he likes his depth at running back. In 2020, it will certainly be tested.
- Will Brady Davis be the starting QB when the season opens in September?
The season-ending ACL injury happened in mid-November to Davis’ left knee – the same knee he injured at Memphis. Despite the timing of the injury, Davis promised on social media after the injury that he will be under center for the Redbirds when they take the field Sept. 4 in Champaign against Illinois. That timeline gives Davis, who had surgery Dec. 4, nine months to work his way back onto the field. His experience and leadership are unmatched on the ISU roster at the QB position. Another year under center will give Davis’ understudies – Bryce Jefferson and Jack Baltz – the opportunity to develop even further.
- Can the defense keep up its record-breaking performance?
There were the school-record 52 sacks, the highest total in FCS, along with the No. 1 ranking in red-zone defense in the country. The Redbirds’ defensive unit was extraordinary in 2019, allowing 4.57 yards per play. Only seven other FCS teams were stingier, including the two teams that will play for the national championship (North Dakota State and James Madison). Based on the starting lineup in the season finale, the Redbirds lose only two senior starters (safety Luther Kirk and linebacker Ty DeForest). ISU may not skip a beat defensively, thanks to the fact that it returns defensive end and sack leader Romeo McKnight (12), and cornerback/pass breakup leader Devin Taylor (19), who also had the team’s most interceptions (five). Also back is linebacker and second-leading tackler Dylan Draka, who had 88 stops. The return of its entire defensive line, a good portion of the linebacking corps and a deep, talented secondary will give the Redbirds one of the top defenses in the country.
- Who will step forward in the receiving corps?
A healthy Edgar clearly makes the ISU offense much better. His 228-yard game against Northern Arizona stands as proof that he’s one of the most talented wideouts in the conference. The injuries to Edgar and Davis, who completed only 52 percent of his passes when healthy, hampered ISU’s passing game. The result was ISU being the 118th-ranked passing game (117.8 yards a game) among 124 FCS teams. Despite Edgar’s 12-catch game against Northern Arizona, no ISU wideout had more than 23 catches for the season. That team-leading total came from true freshman Kacper Rutkiewicz, while 15 catches came from sophomore Austin Nagel. Next season could also include more production from intriguing redshirt sophomore tight end Tanner Taula, a 6-foot-6 target.
- Is ISU back to being an annual playoff participant?
This season’s two playoff wins were the first postseason victories for the Redbirds since 2015. It also marked a return to the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2016. Could this be the beginning of multiple playoff seasons for ISU? They certainly have the defense to make it happen. What the Redbirds need is more offensive production, especially in the passing game. This season, ISU averaged 19.8 points a game, which ranked 104th nationally and seventh in the 10-team MVFC, ahead of only Indiana State, Western Illinois and Missouri State.