NORMAL — Head coach Brock Spack is normally positioned near midfield during the early stages of Illinois State football practices at Hancock Stadium.
Spack can look to his left to check out the Redbird defense and gaze to his right for a glimpse of the ISU offense.
After watching his team cough up 97 points in distressing losses the past two weeks, Spack has narrowed his line of sight to his team’s struggling defense.
Spack announced Tuesday he is taking over the coaching of the Redbird linebackers. That will free linebackers coach Jay Peterson to work with the defensive ends and allow defensive line coach Spence Nowinsky to focus on the interior linemen.
“I’m not going to stand in the background when I can help,” said Spack, who was Purdue’s defensive coordinator before coming to ISU. “Spence has a lot on his plate. He’s got some issues inside, too. We’ve got to get more eyes on them. We’ve got to get our ends straightened out.”
The Redbirds’ starting defensive ends are sophomore Nick Broome and redshirt freshman Shelby Harris. The top reserves are true freshman Colton Underwood and junior Jake Detmers.
“It’s not just the ends. It’s the safeties and outside linebackers,” Spack said of ISU’s recent difficulties containing rushes to the perimeter. “We have to really emphasize fundamentals. We have to get more speed on the field.”
With that in mind, Spack has shifted tailback Cliffton Gordon to outside linebacker. Gordon, ISU’s leading rusher last season, has been limited to nine carries for 26 yards with the arrival of newcomers Erik Smith, Ashton Leggett and Cameron Hunt at tailback.
“He’s not playing as much on offense as he was a year ago,” said Spack. “He’s a tough kid who can run.”
A 5-foot-10, 195-pound junior, Gordon is receptive to the change even though he hasn’t played defense since his sophomore year at Marian Catholic High School.
“Athletically, I can adapt,” Gordon said. “I’ve still got an offensive mentality. But the first two days out there I’ve been doing all right and getting up to speed. They’ve already got me out there with the twos. I’ll keep studying my playbook and playing fast.”
ISU is 3-3 overall and 2-2 in the Missouri Valley Football Conference entering Saturday’s 2 p.m. homecoming game against No. 14 North Dakota State at Hancock Stadium.
The past two games have seen the Redbirds lose to Valley foes Southern Illinois (38-17) and Indiana State (59-24) while giving up a combined 637 rushing yards.
“We’re very disappointed the way we performed,” said defensive tackle Mike Piton. “I think all of us on the defensive side of the ball have got to look ourselves in the mirror and evaluate ourselves and figure out where we want to be in the next five games.
“I think that starts at the top with us seniors. We’ve got to do a better job leading everybody on the defensive side.”
Outside linebacker Austin Davis believes the Redbirds suffered from a lack of emotion at Indiana State.
“It didn’t really seem like it was happening. We all kind of fell apart. We were all pretty much down,” Davis said. “We need a game where we play with emotion and get back to fundamentals so we don’t have those kind of breakdowns.”
Spack said the dismissal of defensive tackle Xzavier Stewart in late September for conduct detrimental to the team has not been a major factor in the past two games.
“I don’t think so,” said Spack. “It obviously hasn’t helped. But teams have hurt us on the perimeter more than inside.”
The ISU coach also believes a major schematic shift would hurt more than help his beleaguered defense.
“You can’t do that,” he said. “We’ll help them a few ways schematically. But schematics were not an issue Saturday, not one bit. It’s fundamental football that’s the issue right now. We have to work on getting off blocks, tackling and fitting (gaps) right.”
Free safety Casey Kocuiba will miss the North Dakota State game after suffering a partial tear of a ligament in his elbow against Indiana State.
“He’s not necessarily out for the season,” said Spack. “But it’s not good.”