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NORMAL — The reasons that caused Luther Kirk to leave the Illinois State football team have melted away.

And after a year's absence, Kirk is thrilled to be back in a Redbird uniform.

“It’s great to be back, for sure,” Kirk said after ISU’s intrasquad scrimmage Saturday at Hancock Stadium. “I came back to open arms. Everybody accepted me.”

A junior safety, Kirk had 18 tackles as a freshman in 2015 and 15 tackles as a sophomore while filling a part-time role.

But the native of Garland, Texas, instead decided not to play last season while remaining enrolled at ISU.

“I had a lot of injuries going on. I was not looking forward to how the season was going to be and how sure my role was going to be,” Kirk said. “A lot of my confidence was gone. I just didn’t know if I had it in me anymore.”

“I think it was personal. He just stepped away,” said Redbird coach Brock Spack. “I think he missed football and wanted to come back.”

Kirk called his change of heart all about “opportunity. They still wanted me. They gave me an opportunity to come back and show it, and I’ve been showing it so far. It feels good to be back out there.”

To say Spack is glad to have Kirk back in his secondary would be an understatement.

“Man, he’s played well,” Spack said. “He’s exceeded my expectations of what he would be at right now. It’s better than any kind of transfer we could have at the position. He’s stepped up the competition there.”

Kirk, Christian Uphoff and Peyton Jones are among the safeties in competition to replace graduated starter Alec Kocour. The other returning safety, Mitchell Brees, has been sidelined with a hamstring injury.

“We were a little nervous (at safety), but now I think we’re in pretty good shape,” said Spack.

Scrimmage highlights: Jake Kolbe completed 15 of 21 passes for 99 yards. Malachi Broadnax, Tristan Smith and Trenton Hatfield combined for 62 yards while completing 10 of 24.

Markel Smith led the rushers with 46 yards on nine carries, Jordan Birch added 42 yards on 13 attempts and Hatfield scrambled for 40 yards on four tries.

“I thought 21 (Smith) ran the ball pretty well. He’s getting vertical a little better,” Spack said. “25 (James Robinson) is having a great spring, but he didn’t show it today.”

Spencer Schnell topped the receivers with 52 yards on seven catches, and Kentre Patterson hauled in five passes for 41 yards.

Kirk returned a fumble for a touchdown and interceptions were snared by Uphoff, Devin Taylor and Eric Scott.

Turf update: ISU director of athletics Larry Lyons confirmed Saturday that Hancock Stadium will have new FieldTurf installed after spring drills are completed.

"We have approval from the Board of Trustees to move forward with the project," Lyons said. "Now it's a matter of working with the vendor to finalize the details and set the installation schedule."

Lyons said he would prefer to keep the color scheme under wraps for now, but admitted red would obviously be involved.

"We've changed it a little bit," said Lyons. "We're pretty pleased with what we've got scheduled on that."

The Redbird head at midfield will continue to face away from the home side.

"TV is still going to shoot from the west into the new stands," Lyons said.

The projected cost of $600,000 is less than installing a turf from scratch because some foundation aspects of the current turf will be used.

Redbird Remembrance: Spack led his team in a moment of silence after practice in tribute to the seven men associated with Redbird athletics who died in a plane crash three years ago Saturday.

"It was awful,” Spack said. “The guys need to understand what happened here and the history behind it."

Follow Randy Reinhardt on Twitter: @Pg_Reinhardt

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Sports Writer

Sports Writer for The Pantagraph.

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