Before James Robinson made himself an NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate with the Jacksonville Jaguars, he was piling up nearly 1,900 yards as an Illinois State senior.
When the Redbirds kick off the spring season Feb. 20 at Missouri State, the rushing attack will have plenty of new faces trying to replace Robinson and two other top rushers, who produced 93% of the team’s yards on the ground a year ago.
“I’m really excited about our backs,” ISU head coach Brock Spack said during this week’s Missouri Valley Football Conference media day. “We’ve got some good young backs. They may be a little different style than James. I think we’ve got two redshirt freshmen and a true freshman that are good players, and (sophomore) Kevin Brown has had some playing time.”
Along with Robinson and his 1,899 yards, the Redbirds also have lost senior Jeff Proctor (476 yards), last season’s backup who left the program earlier this month. Last year’s third-leading rusher was quarterback Brady Davis, who had 160 yards.
During two preseason scrimmages, true freshman Rashad Lampkin has rushed for 120 yards, while redshirt freshman Nigel White has 100 yards. Fellow redshirt freshman Pha’Leak Brown rushed for 37 yards in the first scrimmage.
Kevin Brown, a native of downstate East St. Louis, has 35 carries and two touchdowns in his young career.
“I’m excited to watch that group,” Spack said. “We’re in good shape as long as we don’t lose four (to injury or illness).”
The Redbirds also are likely to rely on the running ability of new starting quarterback Bryce Jefferson, a sophomore from Indianapolis. Jefferson, who started all three playoff games for ISU last season, rushed for 58 yards against North Dakota State in the Redbirds’ season-ending 9-3 loss in Fargo.
Spack said fellow redshirt freshman running back Cole Mueller will sit out the spring after off-season surgery.
Illinois State was chosen to finish fourth in the league’s preseason poll, which was announced Wednesday, with 80 points in voting of MVFC coaches.
The Redbirds were the top Illinois team in the poll, followed by Southern Illinois in fifth place (68) and Western Illinois tied for ninth (23).
NDSU, which has won the league title nine years in a row, was first in the poll with 101 points, followed by Northern Iowa (92) and South Dakota State (91).
Salukis rack up recognition
Five SIU players earned spots on the MVFC preseason all-conference team, the most of any Illinois school.
Sophomore running back Javon Williams Jr., junior wide receiver Avante Cox and senior offensive lineman ZeVeyon Furcron earned recognition on the offense, while senior defensive lineman Anthony Knighton and senior defensive back Qua Brown were named to the defense.
The Salukis, who begin their spring season Feb. 20 at North Dakota, also placed junior linebacker Makel Calhoun on the honorable mention team.
Illinois State senior offensive lineman Drew Himmelman was named to the all-preseason team while ISU senior fullback Tim McCloyn, junior defensive lineman John Ridgeway, junior linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh and junior defensive back Charles Woods were chosen honorable mention.
Western Illinois had one player, senior punter Adam Fellner, earn honorable mention honors.
Spending the fall as a fan
While the MVFC wasn’t playing in the fall, Southern Illinois head coach Nick Hill and his staff spent plenty of time watching NFL games that featured five different Salukis – Carolina Panthers rookie defensive back Jeremy Chinn, New York Giants DB Madre Harper, Philadelphia Eagles DB Craig James, Seattle Seahawks DB Ryan Neal and and Tennessee Titans tight end MyCole Pruitt.
“It was fun,” Hill said. “It was a unique fall.”
Hill and his wife made a trip to Carolina to watch Chinn.
“We turned that into a fall trip for my wife and I,” he said. “We stayed in the mountains and then went and watched Jeremy. It doesn’t get much better for me than being outdoors, going on a hike and then watching NFL football.”
Hill told his coaching staff to embrace the chance to do things they couldn’t normally do without a fall football season.
“It was a unique opportunity to do something different,” he said.
New faces in Macomb
Western Illinois head coach Jared Elliott’s program brought in 12 transfers as part of its recruiting class announced this week.
The new faces have sparked a different energy, the WIU coach said.
“It’s a brand new football team,” Elliott told the MVFC media. “That’s exciting but also challenging with a short turnaround to get a team ready. In terms of football, they’ve already made an impact and started to show up. They’ve quickly been able to fit into our team and build relationships.”
The Leathernecks open the season Feb. 19 at South Dakota, a date that Elliott can’t wait to arrive.
“I’m having more fun coaching football now than I ever have,” he said. “Every coach wants to have a team that you have fun coaching.”