The worst game of Bryce Jefferson’s college career is one he won’t forget.
Why is the Illinois State quarterback’s four-interception game during the spring against South Dakota so memorable for the Indianapolis native? Because he used it as a teaching tool over the past six months.
“After that game, I watched it probably 10 times, over and over and over and over, to see all the mistakes and all the throws,” Jefferson said. “I feel like I learned a lot from that game.”
During the Redbirds’ abbreviated four-game spring campaign, Jefferson started with a 15-for-33 outing in the opening loss to South Dakota, then finished with a 17-for-23 effort against Western Illinois before ISU opted out of the remainder of the schedule.
The Redbirds are less than two weeks from opening the fall season at home Sept. 4 against Butler, a member of the non-scholarship FCS Pioneer Football League.
Those four spring games, in which the Redbirds (1-3) finished last in the Missouri Valley Football Conference in pass efficiency and second-to-last in scoring offense (17.2 points a game), offered Jefferson and his teammates plenty of opportunity for growth.
“From that South Dakota game to that Western game, a lot changed,” said Jefferson, who threw only two interceptions in the final three spring games. “I got more comfortable. I got more confident. Into this fall, I feel like I’m seeing the field a lot better and I’m able to make throws I didn’t feel I could make (in the spring.)”
Confidence in Jefferson’s abilities and leadership are evident across the roster and the coaching staff.
“I really do believe this is going to be his come-out year,” fullback Tim McCloyn of Huntley said. “He’s going to make quite an impact.”
Head coach Brock Spack said the South Dakota game showed him how much the team is behind Jefferson.
“What I learned about our team is they really like this guy,” he said. “There was no finger pointing. … It’s OK to fail. It’s part of competition. Bryce responded really well. That was a huge lesson.”
Tight end Tanner Taula, who led the team with 13 receptions and two touchdowns in the spring, said the unique FCS season amid the COVID-19 pandemic amounted to “four free games.”
In his previous two seasons, Taula had a combined 12 receptions.
“It felt good to get the ball in my hands a little bit more and make some strides in the blocking game, too,” he said. “I think we’re going to be way better.”
Wide receiver Austin Nagel, whose 188 receiving yards led the Redbirds in the spring, said ending the season after four games was physically beneficial.
“It saved a lot of us,” he said. “That we were able to cut it short and recuperate before summer (conditioning) led into us having the great summer that we were able to. It’s going to benefit us for sure in the fall.”
Run game rewards
The spring was also a transition for ISU’s run game, from all-world tailback James Robinson to a slew of new faces.
The spring finale against WIU featured dueling 100-yard performances from two of those Robinson replacements – Nigel White (112) and Pha’leak Brown (108).
“They’re all different from the way James was,” McCloyn said. “We have more fast, small scatbacks, where James was more of a power runner. But they’re adjusting very nicely. They’re trusting blocks. They’re maturing nicely.”
Jefferson also showed off his ability to scramble, rushing for 138 yards, the third-highest total on the team behind Brown (271) and White (230).
Spack likened Jefferson’s running ability to that of former Redbird standout Tre Roberson.
“When he scrambles, he’s kind of like Roberson,” Spack said. “There’s a confidence about Bryce. He’s got a good feel for when he should pull it down and scramble. I get excited when he starts moving around.”
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