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Illinois State Redbirds look to step up
Whether by default or by determination, Illinois State coach Brock Spack is pulling double duty this year.
Spack, a former defensive coordinator at Purdue, will take over the Redbirds’ defense in addition to being the head coach this fall. The position became open after Steve Szabo took an indefinite leave of absence in mid-April because of what Spack called “personal matters” in a story in the Bloomington Pantagraph.
Illinois State finished 6-5 last season mostly because of its defense, which ranked 112th out of 117 Football Championship Subdivision teams in yards allowed per game. The Redbirds allowed 446.27 yards per game, more than 246 yards a game through the air, and 39.64 points per game, which ranked 113th in the country.
With seven returning starters on defense, Spack will have good experience, but said Monday he was more interested in how his players compete rather than the actual scheme of things.
“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Spack said. “There’s no doubt that we have to get better in the secondary. We feel like our secondary has to improve drastically for us to compete this year. I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’ve improved our toughness and our ability to run the football. It’s not what we do, it’s how we do it.”
Illinois State lost, arguably, its two best defensive backs from last season in cornerback E.J. Jones and safety Kelvyn Hemphill. Jones led the Redbirds and the Missouri Valley Football Conference with seven interceptions. Hemphill was the team’s third-leading tackler, with 67 stops, and led the team with five pass breakups.
Three starters return up front: senior Eric Brunner, junior Nick Broome and sophomore Shelby Harris. Linebackers Mike Zimmer, Austin Davis and Josh Howe are expected to line up behind them. Sophomore Ryan Givens, who had 37 tackles in 10 starts, is the lone returning starter in the secondary.
The schedule could be kind this year. The Redbirds play on the road in four of their first six games of the season, but host four of their last five. Without a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent for the first time since 1994, Illinois State will host six games this year: Sept. 10 (Morehead State), Sept. 24 (South Dakota State), Oct. 15 (South Dakota), Oct. 22 (Indiana State), Nov. 5 (Western Illinois) and Nov. 19 (Northern Iowa).
Coach: Brock Spack, third season, 12-10 career, 12-10 at ILS
Last year: 6-5 overall, 4-4 MVFC (tied for third)
Returning starters: 16 (nine on offense, seven on defense, no specialists)
Key losses: DB E.J. Jones (team-best seven interceptions last year led the league); DB Kelvyn Hemphill (third-leading tackler with 67 stops, team-best five pass breakups); PK/P Steven Fetzer (averaged 37.3 yards per punt, made 14-of-20 field goals and 35-of-37 extra points)
Player to watch: WR Tyrone Walker, a second team all-conference pick last year, set career highs in receptions (59), receiving yards (974) and touchdowns (12).
Salukis/Redbirds: Oct. 29, Saluki Stadium (15,000), 2 p.m.
Series: SIU leads 38-32-3; Salukis won last year’s game in Normal 38-17 and have won the last two meetings by 20 or more points
BY TODD HEFFERMAN THE SOUTHERN