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Illinois State safety Mitchell Brees (9) dives into the end zone for a touchdown on a 35-yard interception return during a 2017 victory over Butler at Hancock Stadium.

NORMAL — Mitchell Brees really enjoyed playing wide receiver.

And judging by his Al Toon Award as the top senior prep receiver in Wisconsin, Brees was pretty good at it, too.

Yet being recruited to Illinois State as an “athlete” meant his college career could wind up on either side of the line of scrimmage.

“His value was a lot higher for us as a defensive back,” ISU coach Brock Spack said. “We thought he had real good length and ran well for his size. We thought he would be a real good safety.”

That is indeed what Brees has become. As a third-year strong safety, Brees has started 31 games, more than any other Redbird on either side of the ball.

A native of West Allis, Wis., Brees piled up more than 1,300 receiving yards and caught 16 touchdown passes as a senior at Greendale High School. He also intercepted six passes.

“Honestly, I did like receiver,” the 6-foot-3 Brees said. “But I realized safety you can play every down. There are lots of opportunities. I’ve grown to love safety. I like it a lot more than I thought I would.”

Spack sensed it took some time for Brees to fully envision himself as a defender.

“When we moved him over, we didn’t know how he would take it,” said Spack. “But he’s done a good job. He’s really had a calming effect on our secondary.”

Brees learned from 2017 senior secondary members Alec Kocour, Davontae Harris and DraShane Glass. But with that trio having gone, Brees is the elder statesman.

“He’s done a nice job from a leadership end grooming our younger players and serving as a mentor to them,” secondary coach Cody Deti said. “He’s really helped Christian (Uphoff) develop as a player. I’m proud of what he’s accomplished here.”

Brees ranks seventh on the Redbirds with 35 tackles. He has two of his five career interceptions this season.

“When I got here I was 185 pounds. Now I’m 205-210,” said Brees. “My bench (press) has gone up 125-150 pounds. I was pretty weak compared to some other players. I worked with (strength coach Jim) Lathrop a lot.”

Brees, who will graduate in December with a marketing and sales major, is the only senior among ISU’s defensive backs.

“I try to keep passing the torch that way. I try to help them out with anything they need,” he said. “Some of these guys we have coming up are really good. We have a lot of guys who can elevate their game off the field in terms of the weight room, film study and making sure they’re doing good in school.”

Sophomore cornerback Devin Taylor considers Brees a valuable resource.

“Mitch has helped me a lot. If I mess up in practice, he knows what to do,” Taylor said. “If I need guidance, he’s there for pretty much anything.”

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Contact Randy Reinhardt at (309) 820-3403. Follow him on Twitter: @Pg_Reinhardt

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Reporter

Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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