NORMAL — Asked what he wants out of his middle linebacker, new Illinois State defensive coordinator Travis Niekamp responds quickly.
“Everything,” said Niekamp, who also coaches the Redbird inside linebackers.
“The way the game has changed at our level, it’s turned into a very open field, spread style offense,” said Niekamp. “It means your mike (middle) has to be able to run and change direction and make plays in space.”
Leading the competition to try to live up to those lofty expectations are junior Ty DeForest and redshirt freshman Zeke Vandenburgh.
“I’m very impressed with both players. DeMarco Washington has done a very nice job there, too,” ISU head coach Brock Spack said. “I’m very pleased with the battle there.
"If you’re in the two deep or even three deep on defense, you’re going to play. You’ve got to have two. We think we have three.”
A transfer from Wisconsin, DeForest is currently the first team mike linebacker. DeForest played in passing situations last season and totaled 35 tackles and two sacks.
“I’ve bounced around. I have a feel for all the positions,” DeForest said. “I feel comfortable at the (mike) position. It makes more sense now. It used to be a little more confusing. The way we’re running it now, it’s running really smooth. Everybody is learning really fast and really well.”
Spack said DeForest’s 6-foot, 250-pound build is deceiving.
“You wouldn’t think he would be able to play in space, but he’s very good in space,” said Spack. “He tackles well for a guy as thick as he is. I didn’t know if he could be a mike, but he’s done a great job.”
Vandenburgh has been considered ISU’s future at middle linebacker since arriving on campus from Freeport High School. The future may be now.
“Zeke is making a lot of progress,” Niekamp said. “He does things really well when he’s comfortable. When he’s not comfortable, he thinks a little too much and hesitates. He’s been pretty productive. He’s got a good head on his shoulders.”
Spack calls Vandenburgh “a tremendous student. I think he’s a 4.0 (grade point average) student. He has really good size. He’s very physical and he can accelerate.”
Vandenburgh played on the defensive scout team last season while redshirting. In the process, he added 20-25 pounds and now has 235 pounds on his 6-3 frame.
“It was a good experience going against the ones (starters) on offense. I got a whole year in the playbook so it was good,” he said. “Obviously, I want to play right away. But I’m just trying to get better. Reps are everything, getting more comfortable and seeing the flow of the play quicker.”
A quarterback at Peoria Notre Dame, Washington brings even more size (6-3, 235 pounds) to the position.
"All three of them are having pretty good springs," Niekamp said. "It's a good competition."
Schnell injured: Spencer Schnell, by far ISU’s most experienced wide receiver, suffered a shoulder injury in practice Thursday.
“He fell on it wrong,” Spack said. “I don’t think it’s anything real serious. At max, I think we’ll put him on the shelf for the rest of spring. But we’ll see.”
Meyer returns: Fieldcrest High School product Nick Meyer has returned to the ISU program and will serve in a quality control role.
Meyer was a student assistant for the Redbirds from 2012-15.