Non-Conference Opponent Preview: Illinois State
2015 Record: 10-3 overall, 7-1 Missouri Valley Football Conference
Key Returners: WR Anthony Warrum, S Alec Kocour, OL Mark Spelman, OL Kyle Avaloy
Key Losses: QB Tre Roberson, RB Marshaun Coprich, LB Pat Meehan
Coming off of a second consecutive extremely successful season in 2015, Brock Spack’s Redbirds will certainly represent a big time, undaunted FCS program when they visit Evanston for the first time since 2010 on September 10. After losing in the FCS Narional Championship game in 2014, ISU was bounced in the second round of the FCS Playoffs last December. And despite losing two of the most prolific offensive players in program history (Roberson and Coprich), Spack’s squad is picked to finish fourth in the always tough Valley and is the preseason No. 8 team in the FCS Coaches Poll.
Offense: Like many FCS teams, Illinois State finds its bread and butter in its offense. ISU finished 17th in the nation in scoring offense in 2015, averaging just less than 35 points per game. But unfortunately for Illinois State, their two-time MVFC Offensive Player of the Year, running back Marshaun Coprich, and first-team all-MVFC quarterback Tre Roberson, graduated this spring and are no longer on-campus fixtures in Normal.
For that reason, the Redbirds will rely on three players with very little prior college experience at arguably the two most important offensive positions. Senior Jamal Towns and sophomore George Moreira will split time at running back for ISU. The two combined for 318 yards and three touchdowns on 62 carries a season ago. And under center, the Redbirds will likely go with sophomore Jake Kolbe, who made two starts and played in 12 of 13 games last year. The Naperville native finished with a pair of touchdowns and 264 passing yards.
Despite replacing big shoes at running back and quarterback, the Redbirds must be thrilled that they have another season of wide receive Anthony Warrum. The 2015 first team all-MVFC and 2016 MVFC Preseason Team member caught 58 passes last year, gaining 1290 yards (4th most in the nation) and 15 touchdowns. Warrum could very likely represent the most dangerous receiving threat at Ryan Field on September 10.
Defense: There’s no question that offense has been Illinois State’s calling card during Brock Spack’s tenure in Normal, but the ISU defense was certainly stout in 2015, allowing just over 21 points per game (tied for 26th nationally). Unfortunately for the Redbirds though, the only three defenders to win postseason all-MVFC awards last year have graduated, leaving behind what could be a way less talented defense.
Junior Alec Kocour will lead an ISU secondary that will likely be, by process of elimination, the best Redbird defensive unit in 2016. Kocour is a MVFC Preseason Team Member and led ISU in interceptions with three picks last year.
The defensive line could be a major question mark for ISU, as the Redbirds have to replace two former all-conference linemen with underclassmen.
Special Teams: The Redbirds will feature a returning kicker and punter in Sean Slattery and Reece Attard respectively. Slattery finished 10-18 field goal-wise last year, while Attard finished with an average punt distance of just under 39 yards.
It should be noted as well that perhaps the most dangerous player on the roster, Anthony Warrum, will likely return punts again for the Redbirds in 2016.
2016 Outlook: Despite losing key contributors, Brock Spack has the opportunity to prove that his ISU machine is well-oiled in 2016. The Redbirds are respected as one of the top programs at the FCS level at this point in Spack’s tenure, and 2016 represents an opportunity for the boys from Normal to prove that their program is bigger and deeper than a couple of big time FCS players. There’s no reason why ISU can’t dance into mid-December for a third straight season.
Best Case: The Redbirds lose close road games at Northwestern and North Dakota State but win their other nine games, earning an at-large bid to the FCS Playoffs and making a run to the second or third round.
Worst Case: ISU can’t make up for all of the lost production from Roberson and Coprich, lose ugly games to Northwestern and North Dakota State, and fail to make the FCS postseason for the first time since 2013, finishing 7-4 or 6-5.