5 burning questions for 2022: Illinois State edition
today at 4:43 am
Brock Spack’s review of his team’s passing attack this fall was direct and blunt.
“We are light years away from being able to throw the football the way you should in Division I football,” the Illinois State head football coach told WJBC radio after his team’s season-ending home loss to Indiana State last month. “Some of it is protection, some of it is receiver speed and a lot of it is quarterbacks.”
The Redbirds’ nine passing touchdowns this fall were the fewest in nearly two decades.
Fixing the issue is going to take plenty of work, and it is the most prominent of five burning off-season questions facing the Redbirds.
How can ISU resurrect its passing game?
The problem faces three major issues – efficiency at quarterback, protection up front and the lack of a go-to receiver.
Primary starter Jackson Waring, a freshman, combined with incumbent Bryce Jefferson to complete only 52% of their passes and produce nine touchdowns with seven interceptions this fall. The last single-digit passing TD total for an ISU starter was Mike Souza’s eight in 2002.
The last time an ISU quarterback completed better than 60% of his passes in a season was Jake Kolbe in 2016. That same year, Kolbe was sacked 37 times. This season, Waring and Jefferson were sacked 34 times, the highest total ISU has allowed since 2016. After the season, Jefferson announced his departure via the transfer portal.
While 19 different players caught at least one pass this fall, the lack of a top target was evident.
Departing senior Austin Nagel’s 19 receptions led the team but also marked the first time ISU’s leading receiver had fewer then 20 catches since 1975.
2. Will the need for speed be met?
Spack decried a lack of speed in the receiving corps immediately after the season. Now the pressure is on the head coach and his staff to find some in recruiting.
On the current roster, Spack specifically mentioned speedy rising junior Jabari Khepera, a two-time state track champion in Texas. Despite catching a 75-yard touchdown against Missouri State, Khepera made only 12 other catches on the season, and his 11.7 yards per reception average ranked fifth on the team.
3. What will the linebacker group look like next fall?
Two longtime pieces of this unit need to be replaced as leading tackler Shanon Reid has departed, along with thumper Brandon Simon, who sustained a season-ending injury in Week 2. Simon led the team in tackles for loss and sacks in the shortened spring FCS season. Both were recognized on Senior Day.
Expect to see plenty of Damien Jackson, who started seven games as a sophomore at the jack linebacker spot in Simon’s place, compiling 44 tackles. As a redshirt freshman this fall, Jeremiah Jordan had 3.5 sacks while playing in all 11 games in a reserve role. Reid’s primary backup, Maine West graduate Jacob Bellizzi, had 14 tackles in 10 games.
Honorable mention All-MVFC honoree Zeke Vandenburgh, who was not among those honored during Senior Day festivities, provided the biggest contributions in the pass rush this season with a team-leading four sacks and eight quarterback hurries. The steady Kenton Wilhoit, who started every game and returned an interception for a touchdown on a highlight-reel play at South Dakota, will provide experience with 14 career starts.
4. How valuable was RB Cole Mueller to the offense?
In his first full season as a starter, Mueller was a beacon of hope for an offense that managed only one offensive touchdown for three consecutive weeks to end the season.
Mueller’s 977 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground led the team after he missed the spring with a knee injury. His redshirt freshman season this fall included four 100-yard games. In those contests, the Redbirds went 3-1. ISU posted a 1-6 record when Mueller didn’t surpass 100 yards.
Along with his 72 receiving yards, the elusive Mueller produced 38% of the Redbirds’ offensive yardage by himself. If the Redbirds can discover an improved passing game, Mueller’s impact could be even greater next fall.
5. Does the 2022 schedule favor a turnaround?
The Redbirds should enjoy a friendly start to the fall campaign. For the sixth time in the past seven seasons, Illinois State’s non-conference schedule will include a member of the non-scholarship Pioneer Football League or an NAIA team.
This fall, that opponent will be Pioneer member Valparaiso for the Sept. 3 season opener in Normal, according to FBSchedules.com.
After a September bye week, ISU begins a stretch of 10 consecutive game weeks with a home contest against Eastern Illinois, a team who has had three consecutive one-win seasons.
After a road game at the University of Wisconsin, the MVFC season opens with three 2021 playoff qualifiers in a row – Southern Illinois at home, followed by a road game at Northern Iowa and a home date against South Dakota. The schedule also includes rugged road games at North Dakota State and South Dakota State, who both are playing this coming weekend in the FCS semifinals. The two teams ISU misses in the MVFC scheduling rotation are North Dakota and 2021 playoff participant Missouri State.