Even with the uncertainty of the global pandemic looming, Illinois State head coach Brock Spack exuded confidence that his Redbirds were poised for a highly successful 2020 fall season.
After all, ISU was coming off a run that saw the Redbirds reach the 2019 FCS playoff quarterfinals and had many of its key components returning. When numerous outlets released their 2020 preseason rankings in early summer, ISU was ranked in the Top 10 by multiple sources.
Then came word in August that the Missouri Valley Football Conference was postponing its season until spring.
Along the way the Redbird roster that Spack was so excited to see together on the field went by the wayside. Key players the likes of Romeo McKnight (Charlotte) and Devin Taylor (Virginia Tech) transferred to play their falls at FBS schools.
Highly touted safety Christian Uphoff left the program in the winter to prepare for pro football and wound up signing as an undrafted free agent with Green Bay. Offensive tackle Drew Himmelman did the same with the Denver Broncos.
Come spring, a wave of injuries, specifically along the defensive line, led ISU to opt out midseason on March 20, after only four games and a 1-3 record.
Soon after, other defensive standouts transferred. Cornerback Charles Woods first declared for SMU and then landed at West Virginia. Bloomington native and massive defensive tackle John Ridgeway wound up at Arkansas.
That was then, this is now
So, where does all this leave the Redbirds as they prepare to open camp next week?
“We’ve got some good players, we think. We’re young,” Spack said at Tuesday’s Missouri Valley Football Conference media day. “We’re experienced in certain spots, but we feel good about our depth, a lot better than we were in the spring obviously.”
Illinois State is predicted to finish seventh in the 11-team Missouri Valley according to the preseason poll released earlier this week. That marks the lowest the Redbirds have been picked since 2009 when ISU was eighth out of nine teams.
“I didn’t see that,” Spack said of his team’s poll slot. “but it’s probably very legitimate. We didn’t play a full schedule in the spring. I get it. We’ve lost some players to graduation and guys have moved on that were good players. So I understand it. But, good or bad, I really don’t put much stock in it.”
Running back into form
Offensively, the Redbirds will likely rely on the 1-2 tandem of running backs Pha’leak Brown and Nigel White, the top two rushers in the abbreviated spring.
“They’re both very good players,” Spack said. “Pha’leak took a huge leap this spring and Nigel has done well too.
“Nigel is what I call Florida-fast. He’s from south Florida. Very good speed. He’s not a big guy (5-foot-9, 165 pounds). He’s more of a scatback . . . a guy who can get on the perimeter and make things happen.”
Spack is also excited about getting redshirt freshman Cole Mueller into the lineup. Mueller missed the spring after off-season surgery.
“He’s more of a power runner. He’s more of a downhill runner, and that gives us a different style of runner,” Spack said.
“We just gotta figure it all out. Who’s going to play in what situations and where and in what formation groupings and all that stuff,” he added.
Whoever ultimately carries the ball for the Redbirds will often run behind senior fullback Tim McCloyn, the only ISU player selected on the preseason all-league team.
“A lot of teams in our league use a fullback as well,” Spack said. “It’s a really tough position. You get a lot of contact. You have to be athletic too because you’re in the passing game protection-wise or running routes.
“Tim has done a great job here. He’s a really good student. He’s in his master’s program . . . He’s one of the better players we’ve had at that position here.”
Poised on the precipice of school history
Spack enters his 13th season at ISU with an 85-53 career coaching record and sits just one game away from tying Howard Hancock (86) for the most wins in program history.
That win should come when the Redbirds open the fall season Sept. 4 at Hancock Stadium against Butler, a program picked to finish last in the non-scholarship FCS Pioneer League.
ISU begins its Missouri Valley Conference schedule Sept. 25 at rival Southern Illinois, a team that reached the FCS quarterfinals in the spring and led the MVFC with 13 preseason all-league selections.
MVFC Preseason Poll
Team (First-Place) … Points
1. South Dakota State (24) … 454
2. North Dakota State (18) … 435
3. North Dakota … 357
4. Southern Illinois … 345
5. UNI (1) … 311
6. Missouri State … 256
7. Illinois State … 196
8. South Dakota … 163
9. Youngstown State … 126
10. Indiana State … 112
11. Western Illinois … 83