NORMAL — The question of how the Illinois State football team will proceed without its top passer, receiver and rusher as well as its offensive coordinator from last season does not require a complicated answer.
In fact, Redbird coach Brock Spack and new offensive coordinator George Barnett are leaning on simplicity.
“The best way to describe it is it’s very simple,” Spack said. “Certain players have certain roles within the system. We play to the strengths of each player, I think, better than we’ve ever done before.”
Barnett remains the Redbird offensive line coach while also assuming coordinator responsibilities formerly held by Luke Huard, who is now at Georgia State.
“The philosophy is very simple,” said Barnett. “We need to establish a physical presence. That’s our team identity, and that needs to be our offensive identity.”
The Redbirds plan to establish the running game behind four returning offensive line starters.
“Everything is a lot more streamlined,” junior tackle Jermaine Barton said. “We’re not overthinking things. Line up and play our style of football.”
Barnett believes another year has allowed his unit to fine tune its talents.
“They have that foundation laid and they can look at understanding the game a little more,” he said. “They have added a physicalness to their game. They can do that now that the foundation has been laid with their fundamentals.”
Spack hesitates to tip his offensive hand by revealing specifics leading up to Thursday’s season opener at Ball State. But it appears the Redbirds are relying less on last year’s horizontal passing game of swing passes and bubble screens.
“That’s a pretty accurate observation,” said Spack. “The last couple years we’ve tried to throw the ball downfield. Any offense worth its salt has to do that. That will be something we like to do. But how a defense plays us will dictate that, too.”
To assist Barnett with the passing game and to replace Huard, Spack hired Eric Koehler as quarterbacks coach. Koehler and Barnett were on the same staff at Division II power Grand Valley State in 2008-09.
“The transition has been so smooth. They’ve done a great job,” Spack said. “I’ve been very happy with how George has led that (offensive staff) room and the direction that room has gone.”
Barnett gave his thumbs up to Koehler joining a staff that includes receivers coach Dan Shula, running backs coach Lamar Conard, tight ends/H-backs coach Greg McLain and offensive line assistant Dan Clark.
“With Eric and I there is a comfort level for sure because we’ve worked together,” said Barnett. “We do things offensively by committee, a collaborative effort. At the end of the day, it’s about getting everyone on the offensive staff to meet the team’s goals.”
Koehler will spend game days in the press box conversing by headset with Barnett, who will call plays from the field.
“Eric has been in the box for years, and I’ve been on the field for years,” Barnett said. “I’m a line guy. The more I can communicate with those guys between plays the better.
“The quarterback will be able to communicate with myself through the phone. That will be a pretty smooth operation.”
Or, in other words, simple.
Thursday – At Ball State, 6 p.m.
After handling Eastern Michigan last season for its first win over a Bowl Subdivision team since 1991, another defeat of a Mid-American Conference team will be no easy task. The Cardinals’ dynamic offense features a fourth-year starter at quarterback in Keith Wenning and a 1,410-yard rusher in Jahwan Edwards.
Sept. 14 – At Eastern Illinois, 6 p.m.
The Redbirds will have plenty of time to prepare for a second look at Eastern coach Dino Babers’ breakneck offense. ISU escaped with a double overtime 54-51 win over the Panthers last September at Hancock Stadium as the teams combined for 1,042 yards of offense. Eastern returns a pair of Walter Payton Award candidates in quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and receiver Erik Lora.
Sept 21 – Abilene Christian, 6 p.m.
ISU unveils the result of its eagerly anticipated $25 million Hancock renovation project. The Wildcats are in transition to the FCS level. Abilene Christian has a new quarterback in John David Baker and standout receivers in Taylor Gabriel and Darrell Cantu-Harkless.
Sept. 28 – At Missouri State, 1 p.m.
The Redbirds open Missouri Valley Football Conference play in the Ozarks mindful of last season’s 24-17 loss to the Bears at Hancock Stadium. The ISU offense was outplayed by the Missouri State defense in 2012 and will need to reverse course to defeat the Bears for the ninth time in 12 encounters.
Oct. 5 – Western Illinois, 2 p.m.
Forecast for ninth in the MVFC, the Leathernecks have a new coach in Bob Nielson. On homecoming, the Redbirds will try to topple Western for the third straight time, a feat they have not accomplished since the 1940s.
Oct. 12 – At Youngstown State, 6 p.m.
Four-year starting quarterback Kurt Hess leads a Penguins’ bunch that squandered a 28-7 lead over ISU before losing 35-28 at Hancock Stadium. This game is early enough that weather conditions at the “Ice Castle” should not be a major factor.
Oct. 19 – Indiana State, 1 p.m.
The Underwood brothers (Illinois State’s Colton and Indiana State’s Connor) match skills as top flight defensive linemen. Electrifying tailback Shakir Bell poses a huge challenge for the Redbirds. The Sycamores, who must rebuild a stout defense, are led by first-year coach Mike Sanford.
Oct. 26 – South Dakota, 1 p.m.
The Coyotes were 0-8 in league play last season and are picked last in the Valley’s preseason poll. South Dakota nearly rallied for an upset over ISU last season at the Dakota Dome before the Redbirds escaped with a 34-31 win. ISU will need to do a better job of containing quarterback Josh Vander Maten on Family Day.
Nov. 2 –Northern Iowa, 1 p.m.
In the last of three consecutive home games, a Northern Iowa team seeking a bounce back season visits Normal. The Panthers kept ISU out of the playoffs with a win in Normal in 2011, but the Redbirds returned the favor last season at the UNI-Dome.
Nov. 9 – At North Dakota State, 2:30 p.m.
A trip to the already sold-out Fargodome to face the two-time defending national champions means facing the loaded Bison in a game that could significantly enhance ISU’s playoff resume. The Redbirds have played well in Fargo under Spack.
Nov. 16 – At Southern Illinois, 2 p.m.
ISU closes the regular season in Carbondale against a Salukis’ team that upset the Redbirds in Normal in 2012 with a strong defensive effort. Southern is 5-1 in the last six games against ISU.