NORMAL — Dalton Keene did play defense at Jacksonville High School. With Keene’s talents, the Crimsons weren’t going to keep him on the sideline for very long at a time.
A tight end as well, Keene admits with a smile his “high school days were offense focused.”
And so were his college dreams after enrolling at Illinois State until Keene and Redbird coach Brock Spack had a talk.
“Dalton was stubborn in the recruiting process. He thought he was definitely a tight end,” Spack said. “I asked him ‘do you like dieting. You could get to 275-280 and be a pretty good player over there (on defense).’ "
After early work on the scout team offense, Keene eventually relented and the career of one of ISU’s top Spack era defensive linemen was born.
“I stopped eating five salads a day. I got to eat something other than that,” Keene said. “I never thought I would be playing defense in college. But it’s been a blast so far.”
A second team all-Missouri Valley Football Conference selection last season, the senior tackle leads Redbird linemen with 36 tackles and paces the team in tackles for loss (10½) and sacks (six).
“Dalton had a lot to learn up front, but he’s become a very good technician,” said Spack, whose 12th-ranked team meets No. 15 Western Illinois in a noon MVFC game at Hancock Stadium. “He’s very athletic for a guy his size, and his toughness is at a very high level. That makes him a very tough guy to block.”
Keene credits ISU defensive coordinator Spence Nowinsky for teaching him the nuances of playing defensive line and strength coach Jim Lathrop for developing him physically.
“Coach Nowinsky has been with me since day one. I can’t express how much he’s changed my life,” Keene said. “He’s a phenomenal coach. The reason I am who I am right now is because of him.”
Keene’s first exposure to Lathrop was through a 4:30 a.m. summer weight room session as a 245-pound freshman.
“That’s when you realize you’re with the big boys, and you’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do,” said Keene. “We have a lot of speed and agility stuff and the perfect amount of each.
"I never could have imagined being this strong and being able to move like I do. That’s a testament to him (Lathrop).”
At 6-foot-4, 275 pounds, Keene possesses an athleticism rare for his size.
“You watch him on film and his speed and power jumps out on the screen,” ISU end Adam Conley said. “It’s impressive to watch. He can run with anybody on this team.”
Nowinsky said Keene, whose 37 career starts are more than any other Redbird, was not a natural defensive player but had every other attribute required to be an excellent lineman.
“He had to learn by his diligence, his training, his study of film,” said Nowinsky. “He has speed and agility and ability to change direction. He’s very strong. He can bend and play at low leverage. Against guards and centers, it’s an extreme mismatch athletically.”
Keene’s athleticism shows through his other statistics: five passes tipped at the line, seven quarterback hurries, one fumble recovery and two forced fumbles.
Nowinsky gushes about Keene’s character.
“He’s incredible. He really is. He’s an extremely wonderful athlete and also an extremely wonderful human being,” Nowinsky said. “Everybody thinks the world of him. He’s so endearing and so including of everybody.”
Spack believes Keene could play in the NFL. While Keene would likely have to bulk up to play an interior line position, his quickness may allow him to line up at an end or an outside linebacker spot in a 3-4 alignment.
"Absolutely," Keene said. "I'll give it a shot when all is said and done."
Keene has gone through his ISU journey with his sister. Jaelyn Keene is an all-conference player on the Redbird volleyball team.
“She has her own story and her own life she’s living. She’s had a great career. I love watching her play,” said Dalton. “We’ve both been successful. That’s all we can ask for. We love this university and we’re going to give everything we’ve got to it until we can’t give any more.”