NORMAL—Illinois State has built much of its recent success off the defensive side of the ball. Despite losing several key contributors, head coach Brock Spack and his Redbirds enter fall camp with a not-so-quiet confidence.
Familiar names are gone from an ISU defense that helped carry the Redbirds into the quarterfinal round of the FCS playoff in 2019. In fact, the top six statistical leaders in tackles (and 9 of the top 10) are gone from that post-season run.
This past spring, a series 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. Perhaps because of that, the Redbirds were picked to finish seventh in the Missouri Valley Football Conference preseason poll.
Yet, you won’t hear Spack soft-playing his expectations for his defense.
“We just do what we do. We have depth and we train them our way. It’s just the Redbird way,” Spack told Prairie State Pigskin Friday when fall camp opened. “We get them ready. We always have somebody ready in the wings.”
The Redbirds return a strong group of linebackers. Senior Brandon Simon, juniors Shanon Reid and Zeke Vandenburgh along with sophomore Kenton Wilhoit all will see plenty of playing time.
“We have good coaches. We’ve been doing this stuff for a long time,” said Spack, a former Big Ten linebacker and defensive coordinator.
Although ISU played an abbreviated spring schedule, valuable experience was still gained.
“For me, the spring was a huge learning time because it was my first time starting,” said Wilhoit, who tied for the team lead in tackles. “We hadn’t played for awhile and just getting that experience in games was really helpful. And that was this year, it was still only like four months ago and so those reps are starting to carry over now.”
It starts up front
In order for any team’s linebackers to perform well, the linemen are far more than just the first line of defense.
The Redbirds lost one of the Missouri Valley’s top interior defensive lineman when John Ridgeway left ISU via transfer and wound up with SEC member Arkansas. Ridgeway, a Bloomington native, tied Wilhoit and defensive back Jarrell Jackson in tackles.
Meanwhile, in the ISU scheme Simon — who lines up in “Jack” position often along the line as rush end — joins defensive tackle Jude Okolo, nose guard Jacob Powell and defensive end Josh Dinga up front.
“It’s never a rebuild, it’s a reload,” Powell said. “Everybody has been competing against each other, especially in the position groups, that you learn a lot from those really good players (who leave or graduate).”
Senior Michael Gomez and juniors Braydon Deming and Noah Hickcox will also get plenty of field time.
“We have the same principles: be tough, hustle to the ball, never take a snap off,” Powell said. “That always rolls over. It’s just new guys getting acclimated to that in fall camp.”
Simon said, “Nothing really changed, (it’s the) same script. I can’t really speak about the talent that we lost, but the talent that we have here on defense I trust. I’m ready to rock.”
Depth charts always fluctuate as fall camps play out, but the Redbirds feel strong about their defensive backfield.
Jackson, a senior, and redshirt freshman Braden Price are slated as the first-team corners while sophomores Clayton Isbell and Iverson Brown are listed as the top safeties.
“I see my role as that I’ve got to step up and be a mentor,” said Jackson, who was credited with two pass breakups and a blocked kick in the spring. “We’re young, but the spring was a lot of experience for us. None of us as DBs had ever started a game before spring, so it meant a lot for us.”
Spack said, “We’ve got depth and all these guys are getting practice reps so no one can complain (about not getting an opportunity).”