NORMAL — Illinois State ranked 14th of 123 FCS programs in rushing defense at 106.4 yards allowed per game this past season.
In order to maintain or improve that lofty standard, the Redbirds will need to find adequate replacements for graduating linemen Dalton Keene, Adam Conley, Matt McCown and James Graham.
ISU won’t suffer from a shortage of ends with Jason Harris, Matt Swaine and Tuvone Clark around and Jalen Sutton on the way. Yet the Redbirds will be trying to develop interior linemen as a key component of its defense for 2018.
That next wave could feature some combination of Jake Powell, Steven Podkulski, Austin Galindo and Jason Lewan.
Powell saw action as a reserve off the bench as a true freshman. Lewan sat out as a redshirt.
“Podkulski’s done a good job getting to where he is now, but he’s got to take another step in the offseason. He’s got a big body and he’s a pretty good athlete,” ISU coach Brock Spack said.
“Lewan is going to be a big dude. He’s put on a lot of weight already. I don’t know if he stays at end or not. I hope he grows into not being one.”
Spack likes the potential of Galindo, a University High School product. “Size, length and strength, he’s pretty good," Spack said. "We’ve got to find out if he’s tough enough to play inside in major college football. He’s going to have to make a jump this spring.”
ISU’s most experienced defensive unit next season will be linebacker. Still, the Redbirds must decide how to replace middle linebacker Bryce Holm.
The current answer is either shifting strong side linebacker Brannon Barry inside or turning to promising freshman Zeke Vandenburgh.
“I really like Zeke. He can play all three spots,” said Spack. “He’s going to be a really good player here. The key will be how fast he can pick up all the calls to run the mike.”
Tyree Horton and Ty DeForest both have seen playing time at weak side linebacker. Horton led the team in tackles with 67, but Spack wants more.
“When I watch him on tape, it’s hard to believe he’s our leading tackler. He doesn’t show up all the time,” Spack said. “Maybe it’s because I expect so much of him. His production needs to catch up to his ability. He could be something really special.”
Decxavier Kelly-Martin started at strong side before Barry took over the position. Spack sees more unrealized potential in Kelly-Martin.
“He needs to get his weight up. He doesn’t eat right,” said the ISU coach. “He doesn’t make enough plays for how athletic he is.”
In the secondary, ISU loses to graduation standout cornerback Davontae Harris, strong safety Alec Kocour and versatile defensive back DraShane Glass.
Mitchell Brees will be a third-year starter at free safety with Willie Edwards absorbing a season of experience at cornerback.
Spack anticipates Christian Uphoff, who had a 100-yard kickoff return this season, stepping in for Kocour.
“He can do anything he wants. He’s very athletic, but his football IQ has to catch up to his ability,” Spack said. “If that happens, he’s going to be something special.”
Devin Taylor saw action in long yardage situations this past season, while youngsters Jarrell Jackson, Eric Scott, Cam Wilson, Ade Kilpatrick and Peyton Jones all have the talent to develop into contributors.