NORMAL — Lechein Neblett watched 2013 Illinois State football games from the sideline, a victim of a season-ending injury in August.
Teammate Bradon Prate joined Neblett out of uniform late in the season. Another knee ligament tear, another knee surgery.
Neblett and Prate were not only faced with the daunting task of a long, arduous rehabilitation, but also the fact that their college football career had one lone season remaining.
What a year it was been for the ISU seniors and the entire Redbird team.
"I always believe the best series of events will unfold," Neblett said. "And so far they have. But we've still got to finish this."
"This" is Saturday's FCS national championship game. The No. 7-ranked Redbirds face Missouri Valley Football Conference rival No. 2 North Dakota State in a noon kickoff at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
"It's pretty rewarding considering all the work I've put in at this school the last five years," said Neblett. "I did as much work as I could to get to this point. Would I have said we would have gotten this far this year? I'm not sure."
Neblett and receiving partner Cameron Meredith have been a huge part of that success, providing quarterback Tre Roberson with deep threats as well as dependable first-down converting catches.
"We missed his speed last year. We weren't able to stretch coverages like we were capable of," ISU coach Brock Spack said of Neblett. "He's turned into a really fine player."
Neblett hauled in a combined 88 passes for 1,025 yards in 2011 and '12 as a complement to star wideout Tyrone Walker.
With 52 catches this season, Neblett needs just 5 receiving yards Saturday to join Meredith in the 1,000-yard club. It would be the first time in school history two receivers reached 1,000 in the same season.
Neblett, who ranks sixth in school history in both receptions and receiving yards, turned in one of his best games on the biggest stage thus far on Dec. 20 with eight catches for 147 yards in the Redbirds' 21-18 come-from-behind win over No. 1 New Hampshire.
The Madison, Wis., native hauled in clutch grabs of 15 yards on third-and-9 and 10 yards on third-and-10 to keep a crucial fourth-quarter drive alive.
"Sometimes I'm not always in the forefront," said the 6-foot, 185-pound Neblett. "But when plays need to be made, I feel like you can count on me."
Prate was a relatively unheralded recruit out of Wauconda High School. He had 26 tackles in 10 games before his injury last season, and has doubled his tackles total as a senior with 54 in 14 games.
"After an injury like that, you've got to work hard. Me being able to make it this far is amazing," Prate said. "Camp (this fall) was grueling. To get in games, the body felt good. After the second or third game, I started to feel more comfortable. I'm really blessed our team got this far."
"Bradon is kind of an unsung hero," said Spack. "He was having a great year (in 2013). He plays a thankless position. He gets double teamed a lot."
The 6-4, 285-pound Prate also has logged 101/2 tackles for loss, 61/2 sacks, one pass break up and one blocked kick.
"I feel like we mesh really well," Prate said of defensive line cohorts Teddy Corwin, David Perkins and Collin Keoshian, "and it's worked out well during games."