NORMAL — Illinois State football coach Brock Spack loves to talk about sophomore tailback Jordan Birch.
“Ooh, he was pretty good today,” said Spack after the Redbirds’ Saturday morning intrasquad scrimmage at Hancock Stadium. “He’s a very talented player. He’s a big back, hard to tackle with great ball skills.”
But ask the ISU coach if and how Birch will be utilized in the passing game in the coming season, and Spack suddenly turns more succinct.
“Yes,” Spack said simply with a wait-and-see grin.
As a redshirt freshman, Birch rushed for 77 yards on 20 carries and caught one pass for a 2-yard loss.
Birch’s eye-popping athletic ability most strikingly showed itself in the season-opening win over Butler when he hurdled a defender on his way to a 26-yard touchdown run that was part of ESPN’s top 10 plays of the day.
“I’ve been in a lot of different things this spring. I’m having a lot of fun learning everything,” Birch said. “It’s all coming together and starting to click every day.
"I’m down to be involved anywhere I can help the team if it’s coming out of the backfield, running the ball or lined up in the slot catching passes.”
ISU already has two proven tailbacks in James Robinson (933 yards last season) and Markel Smith (581). Yet Birch could fill a unique role.
“Jordan is a talented running back, just like the other two,” Redbird offensive coordinator Kurt Beathard said. “But we can put him in and get him the ball in more than one way. I’m excited about Jordan.”
The 6-foot-3 Birch is down about 10 pounds from last season to 218.
“I feel a little bit quicker in and out of my cuts. I feel more explosive,” said Birch. “My lifts have gone up since last year even though my body weight has come down. That’s a good sign.”
Birch rushed for 37 yards on 12 carries and caught 2 passes for 25 yards, including an 18-yard touchdown toss from Jake Kolbe, in Saturday’s scrimmage.
Smith ran for 41 yards on nine tries, Nick Kielbasa 29 yards on eight attempts and Robinson carried five times for 22 yards.
“The running game was really good. The backs ran really well,” Spack said. “We’re a physical, downhill-running team.”
On a blustery morning, Kolbe completed 5 of 12 passes for 83 yards. Tristan Smith was 5 of 8 for 43 yards, Malachi Broadnax 0 of 6 and Trenton Hatfield 1 of 1 for 9 yards.
“The passing game is behind,” said Spack. “We’ve got a lot of receivers banged up.”
Antonio Hadden Jr. led the receivers with three catches for 70 yards.
Linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh paced the defense with eight tackles, while cornerback Eric Scott and safety Peyton Jones had six each. Cornerback Devin Taylor hauled in an interception, and tackle Jacob Powell had a sack.
Extra points: Wide receiver Spencer Schnell remains sidelined with a shoulder injury suffered earlier this week in practice.
“It’s between the neck and shoulder area,” said the Redbird coach. “I think he’s fine. But for precautionary reasons, we’ll keep him out the rest of spring.”
Another receiver, junior college transfer Emmanuel Osuchukwu, has been dismissed from the team, according to Spack.
ISU will hold its annual Spring Showcase public scrimmage April 21 at 1 p.m.