Many mornings at Decatur Central High School in Indianapolis, head football coach Kyle Enright pulled into the parking lot to find a common sight – his two best players, quarterback Bryce Jefferson and wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr., hard at work.
“We start school at 8 a.m., and they’d already be on the field,” he said. “He and Tyrone spent so many hours working together on all the details of the passing game.”
While Tracy is now a starter at Iowa, Jefferson will take over this weekend as the new starting quarterback at Illinois State, the top-ranked FCS program in the state at No. 7 in this week’s STATS Perform poll.
The same work ethic and dedication he showed as a dual-threat prospect in high school are what helped guide Jefferson into the opportunity to lead the Redbirds’ offense, which opens the season Saturday with a home game against South Dakota (noon on ESPN+).
“I really dedicated myself in the off-season to getting better,” Jefferson said. “Being a quarterback, it’s mostly about technique. I dedicated my off-season to getting my feet right, being mentally prepared and coming in with confidence to lead the team.”
Jefferson’s biggest opportunity of his young career came during the 2019 FCS playoffs, when he started three games for the injured Brady Davis, including wins against Southeast Missouri and Central Arkansas, along with a 9-3 loss to eventual national champion North Dakota State in Fargo.
“Those three games gave me the utmost confidence in myself to know that I’m a player that can succeed at this level,” Jefferson said.
When describing Jefferson during Missouri Valley Football Conference media day, ISU head coach Brock Spack said his new quarterback “can extend a play with his feet or his arm or his brain.”
Those feet provided plenty of highlights at Decatur Central, where Jefferson ran for 1,400 yards as a senior.
During his junior year against rival Whiteland, one eye-popping run (7:02 mark of the video) still sticks in Enright’s mind.
The play, which is featured on the recruiting website Hudl, shows how Jefferson eluded nine different defenders on a quarterback run play – at one point evading three Whiteland players along the sideline – to score a 55-yard touchdown.
“It was just a beautiful run,” Enright said. “He looked like a running back, not like a quarterback. It showed his ability to process the play.”
Last season, Jefferson ran for 124 yards, including 58 in the playoff loss to North Dakota State and a rushing touchdown in the postseason win at Central Arkansas.
But managing how much Jefferson runs this season is an ongoing conversation with his coaches.
“That’s the question we talk about every day,” ISU quarterbacks coach Andy Belluomini said. “You don’t want to handcuff him and keep him in the pocket. What makes him really good is his athletic ability. At the same time, you don’t want to get him killed.
“I think we have a good mix of finding ways for him to naturally take off and use his legs where it’s not a designed run,” Belluomini said.
Making plays with his feet has long been a hallmark of Jefferson’s game. But his arm, judging by his high school highlights, also has provided plenty of game-changing moments.
“There are plenty of passes on (Hudl) that are college level,” Tracy said. “In my eyes, he’s one of the best passers I’ve been around.”
The speedy Tracy estimated he and Jefferson combined at least five times for touchdowns on post routes as seniors in high school.
“That was his favorite route and also my favorite route to run,” Tracy said.
But it was a corner route that leads off Jefferson’s senior highlights on Hudl. Down 12-7 in the final seconds against Greenwood High School, Jefferson lofted a throw to the corner of the end zone to Tracy for a 13-12 victory.
“I thought it was overthrown,” Tracy said. “But he put it in the perfect spot. No one else could catch that but me.”
Jefferson expects to have more opportunities to throw this season after completing 15 of 34 passes a year ago, including only 26 attempts in the three playoff games when the Redbirds leaned heavily on All-American running back James Robinson.
“Most definitely, I want to be considered more than a runner,” Jefferson said. “I’m a quarterback at heart, so I love passing the ball.”
Illinois State fans, however, haven’t seen much of his passing skills in a Redbird uniform.
“I think they’re going to be pleasantly surprised when they see him open it up this year and throw the ball,” Enright said. “I can’t wait to see it.”
Belluomini has seen plenty of throws leading up to the spring season, and he has come away impressed.
“He’s got a huge arm,” Belluomini said. “He can make every throw in the offense.”
Learning and leading
While preparing Jefferson for the season, Belluomini has seen first-hand how his new quarterback digests the game.
“He’s very into asking questions and getting answers,” Belluomini said. “He’s awesome in meetings. He’s constantly talking. You’d think he was another coach in there. He has a hunger for knowledge and trying to find the best plays.”
While advancing from the limited playbook in the 2019 playoffs, Jefferson has embraced gaining knowledge and bringing others along with him.
“I’m always in my receivers’ heads, telling them little things,” he said. “I’m always giving them little tips about how I’m seeing the field.”
Though his physical talents are impressive, Enright said Jefferson’s best trait was building relationships with Tracy and others via early morning sessions and constant communication.
“He’s a worker, but he wants to build relationships with his receivers and skill guys so you can trust them when the play breaks down,” Enright said. “I’m sure Bryce is doing that now with his receivers and skill players.”
Despite all the conversations with teammates, Jefferson doesn’t consider himself to be a rah-rah leader.
“I’m a guy who leads by example,” he said. “I’m not the person to get up in front of a group of people and yell and give a great speech. I’m not the loudest. I’m not going to be hooting and hollering. But everybody knows they can count on me to get my job done.”
Fans from afar
From Indianapolis to Iowa City, Jefferson’s friends and former coaches will be watching him closely this spring.
“He’s more than a friend,” Tracy said. “He’s like my brother. I hope he goes out there and does what he did in high school. I’ll be rooting him on from Iowa. If I can make a couple of games, I’m going to.”
Jefferson also has a big supporter in Charleston, home of the Eastern Illinois Panthers, which is one of Illinois State’s most historic rivals.
His girlfriend, Hannah Cravens, is an infielder for the EIU softball team who hit two home runs Sunday and is batting .636 for the Panthers through five games this spring.
The couple has been dating since junior year at Decatur Central.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Jefferson said he visited Charleston regularly and the couple would meet also meet in Champaign for lunch or dinner to see each other during their busy schedules.
“I remember the day she got her call from Eastern with an offer, and I was already committed to ISU,” Jefferson said. “We were just so excited because it’s only an hour-and-a-half down the road.
“It’s definitely great having her be that close and knowing she’s a D-I athlete working her butt off as well,” he said.