NORMAL — Pleased that a question and answer session with the media clocked in under his preset limit of 10 minutes, new Illinois State defensive coordinator Steve Szabo hurried back to his duties Tuesday afternoon at the Kaufman Football Building.
Taking over a defense that allowed 39.6 points per game last season, Szabo recognizes the task at hand.
“We have a long way to go,” Szabo said. “Spring football for us is trying to understand what we can and cannot do. It’s all in an effort to get them to play fast. We don’t want them out there thinking about what they’re doing.”
Lured out of retirement by Redbird head coach Brock Spack, Szabo brings major college and NFL experience to the ISU staff.
“He’s going to be a huge help for us here,” Spack said. “He’s very knowledgeable. He’s been in a variety of different systems. He brings a lot of maturity to our staff in the way of being patient. We’ve got a lot of young players out there, and we’ve got to be patient.”
Szabo has evaluated ISU’s game video of 2010 but is keeping an open mind.
“We graded them as a staff, and we have opinions on what they did a year ago,” he said. “But I’m not sure what they were asked to do. Therefore to say a player can’t do this or that not knowing what he was told, kind of leaves you in the dark. Until we get on the field and get into contact football, that determination has yet to be made.”
Spack and Szabo acknowledge a scheme change is possible after the Redbirds managed to finish 6-5 despite being outscored by 115 points.
“This has been a 4-3 team. That’s what we’re going to start with and proceed from there,” said Szabo. “The complexity of the system we employ will simplify to the point they play fast. If they can absorb more and play fast, then we’ll do a little bit more.”
The Redbirds return all-Missouri Valley Conference defensive tackle Eric Brunner as well as their top two tacklers in linebackers Josh Howe and Austin Davis. End Nate Palmer and linebacker Evan Frierson, both transfers from Illinois, are expected to make an immediate impact.
Cornerback Ryan Givens is the lone starter back in the secondary. Battling for playing time are corners Otis Merrill, Steve Nelson and Marcus Harris and safeties Matt Goldsmith, Adam Rebholz, Cliffton Gordon and Ben Ericksen.
Gordon was switched from tailback to linebacker during the 2010 season and lined up at safety Tuesday on the first day of spring drills. A former wide receiver, Ericksen requested a tryout at safety in search of additional playing time.
“Ericksen has great range with his foot speed,” Spack said. “The key is can he tackle and hit people and how fast can he pick things up mentally.”
Brunner, Nelson, Harris and end Nick Broome will be held out of contact drills this spring while recovering from injuries.
Defensive back Todd Shorter, who started three games and had 19 tackles last season, has been dismissed from the team, according to Spack. Milton Owens, a reserve defensive tackle in 2010, is being tried on the offensive line.