Illinois State ready to debut plenty of new faces on offense

Illinois State ready to debut plenty of new faces on offense
Junior wide receiver Taylor Grimes, who has five career starts, will be part of a bevy of new faces on the ISU offense. (Photo by

Plenty of new faces will be part of the Illinois State offense this spring.

But to starting quarterback Bryce Jefferson – who started three playoff games as a redshirt freshman in 2019 – none of the talent around him Saturday in the team’s season-opening home game against South Dakota (noon, ESPN+ and NBC Sports Chicago) is unfamiliar.

“They know the playbook and they know what needs to be done,” he said of the receiving corps, which includes projected starters Austin Nagel, Taylor Grimes and Kacper Rutkiewicz. “The offense is going to get a little more upbeat and fast paced, probably more pass than run. But at Illinois State, running is our calling card. That’s what we do.”

That run game has lost 93% of its yards from last season with All-American James Robinson moving on to the NFL and his backup, Jeff Proctor, entering the transfer portal earlier this year.

Redshirt freshman Pha’leak Brown is listed as the starting running back, and he will be backed up by fellow redshirt freshman Nigel White. The duo has combined for 10 career carries.

“We have some young running backs who are really talented and very quick,” said Jefferson, who is the top returning rusher at 124 yards. “We have some backs who can get outside and make people miss.”

The run game will certainly benefit from a veteran offensive line that boasts 68 career starts, including 35 by senior left tackle and preseason All-Missouri Valley Football Conference selection Drew Himmelman.

Jefferson also noted the team’s speed at wide receiver and athleticism at tight end, where junior Tanner Taula (seven receptions last season) is the starter and fellow junior Mitchell Lewis will be the top reserve.

“You’re going to see some guys having fun,” Jefferson said of the Redbirds, who are ranked No. 7 this week in the STATS Perform FCS poll.

New-look secondary

The Illinois State defensive backfield will have three new faces – senior cornerback Jarrell Jackson, sophomore free safety Clayton Isbell and sophomore strong safety Iverson Brown – starting their first career games against South Dakota.

The lone starter returning is junior cornerback Charles Woods, who has compiled 18 career starts.

The newcomers aren’t new to being on the field, however, as Brown (18 career games), Jackson (16) and Isbell (15) all have been regular contributors.

Defensive transition

Along with the new faces on offense, the Redbirds lost their top six tacklers on defense from the 2019 season.

Middle linebacker Kenton Wilhoit and weakside linebacker Shannon Reid, a transfer from Tennessee, will be starting their first games in a Redbird uniform.

Also gone are the three top sackers from 2019, when Illinois State piled up an FCS-best 52 sacks as a team.

The defensive line brings back the most experience, with junior defensive end Jason Lewan (26 career starts) and junior nose tackle John Ridgeway (24) returning to the starting lineup.

Spack chases history

In his 12th season as head coach at Illinois State, Brock Spack is only three victories away from becoming the school’s all-time wins leader.

Spack’s teams have produced an 84-50 record (.627) during his tenure. The current record holder for wins is Edwin Struck, who coached the Redbirds for 20 seasons beginning in 1945 and put together an 86-78-14 mark.

Spack is the only coach in ISU history with a winning percentage of better than 60% who has coached more than one season.

About South Dakota

The Coyotes (5-7 last season) list three potential starters at quarterback in senior Tyler Tsagalis, junior Jakob Parks or freshman Carson Camp. Tsagalis was the backup the past two seasons, while Camp is returning home for the game. He is a graduate of Normal Community West High School a few miles from ISU’s campus.

Senior running back Kai Henry needs 81 yards to reach 2,000 for his career. Senior Brady Schutt was the nation’s fourth-ranked punter last season with an average of 45.1 yards. In the last five seasons, the Coyotes have five wins against Top 10 teams.

Where you can watch

The game will kick off at noon and be broadcast on ESPN+ online.

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