Illinois State football faces challenges on and off field as fall camp opens
today at 5:30 am
Illinois State head coach Brock Spack and his family took a long-awaited trip right before spring football practice was set to begin. Then, the world as we know it changed.
“I took my family for a vacation in the Virgin Islands,” Spack told Prairie State Pigskin recently. “I’ll never forget the Wednesday when the NCAA (men’s basketball) tournament was shutting down and (we were) trying to get out of there. Two days later the whole place was shut down; you couldn’t get in or out.”
Shortly thereafter, Spack called off ISU’s spring practice and months later the Missouri Valley Football Conference followed suit with its fall season.
“When we came back it was one thing after another, and it hasn’t really stopped since,” Spack said. “Every day you wonder what will it bring today?”
Fall practice plans
This today brings the arrival of fall camp for Spack’s Redbirds. If all goes according to plan, ISU will practice three days a week until Oct. 24. The spring FCS season is scheduled to begin Feb. 20 with a national championship game in mid-May.
“Obviously trying to keep them healthy from the virus standpoint,” Spack said when asked his top priority. “We’ve got to get back to playing football. I look forward to the opportunity to put shoulder pads and helmets back on. We had them on for one day. We had shells on. It was that weird acclimation period in training camp. Two days of helmets only, then we had shells. You could tell they were rusty. I’ve watched football games on TV and they’re not real sharp. That’s from a lack of playing with pads on and playing live tackle football.”
‘Birds of a different feather
When numerous outlets released their 2020 preseason rankings in early summer, ISU was ranked in the Top 10 by multiple sources. Moreover, the Redbirds joined Missouri Valley Football Conference members North Dakota State and Northern Iowa in those rankings — illustrating the strength of the top league in FCS.
Yet, not all the Redbird news was good. Since the Missouri Valley made its decision to play in a spring schedule, the highly respected Illinois State defense lost three key players: defensive end Romeo McKnight, linebacker Dylan Draka and cornerback Devin Taylor. While McKnight and Taylor have transferred to FBS programs Charlotte and Virginia Tech, respectively, Draka told The Pantagraph that he will graduate in December and not play in the spring. Meanwhile, promising linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh remains with the team but has entered the transfer portal.
On the other side of the ball, the Redbirds are facing the daunting task of replacing All-American running back James Robinson, who has rushed for a Jacksonville franchise record 164 yards in his first two NFL games.
“I wish we could have had our whole team together because we were really excited about this team,” Spack said. “This is a special football team, but it’s going to be different in spring. We’ll see what that looks like and hopefully make the correct adjustments.
“Our team is different right now. We had a long talk about that and what’s our best personnel. Right now, we don’t know. We have an idea, but we don’t know. We’re going to throw some things out there and play some different combinations of guys and see how they look and go from there.”
Spack remains confident in his roster and in his coaching staff.
“The building phase can be real nerve-racking, but I enjoy that part of it,” he said. “We built this program before and we’ll build it again. That’s college football. They don’t all stay forever anyway.”
In the midst of revamping the Redbirds for a spring playoff run, Spack fully realizes that health and safety remains the most challenging part of his job.
“We were doing very well this summer. Our players did a fantastic job as well as our training staff, our medical staff, our strength and conditioning staff of trying to keep the virus under control,” Spack said. “We were doing really well, but we were in somewhat of a bubble. We didn’t have as many students on campus at that time.
“I would have loved to have seen what would have happened if we were allowed to play . . . but because the season got cancelled, there are examples of us maybe letting our guard down a little bit. It’s difficult when you live in the dorm or you live with a bunch of other folks and you’re around a lot of others even in an apartment setup because just an innocent visit by somebody could open you up to the virus. It would have been interesting to see how that all would have worked in-season, because it’s a struggle to keep people out of quarantine.”
A self-admitted “old school coach,” Spack’s message has been clear to his team in this unprecedented environment.
“You can’t let your guard down, that’s what we preach,” he said. “You have to be careful that you don’t hang around people that you don’t know very well. If you’re at large gatherings, put a face covering on and be smart about all that. That’s where we’re at.”