NORMAL — One month ago, Illinois State stepped into the football season with one offensive lineman who had previously started a college game.
Three games in, seven Redbird blockers have at least one start under their belt.
“Coming in for a couple plays is good, but having to be a starter is a different mentality,” said offensive line coach Dan Clark, who also serves as co-offensive coordinator. “When you’re tabbed going into the game as being a starter, it’s a little different pressure.”
And the ISU linemen have been far from merely place-holders. The Redbirds are ranked eighth and 12th by the two major FCS national polls and take a 3-0 record into Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. home game against Indiana State.
Junior guard Chad Kanugh became a starter midway through last season. That experience anointed him the grizzled veteran of the group.
“I saw it (coming), sure,” Kanugh said of the group’s early success. “We put the work in. It’s showing for us so far, and we’re going to keep it up.”
Senior Dean Helt likely would have earned playing time last season if not for an injured shoulder. The versatile Helt could play tackle but was installed as the starting center.
Fieldcrest High School product Jared Rients claimed the starting guard spot opposite Kanugh as a redshirt sophomore. The tackles are junior Donavin O’Day and redshirt freshman Drew Himmelman.
“Since spring ball, we started jelling together,” said O’Day, a 305-pounder from Fort Wayne, Ind. “We’ve made huge strides technically and with the plays. Shoutout to Coach Clark for getting everybody ready and making sure they know their roles so everything would work out right.”
That group of five underwent a forced shuffle for last week’s game at Missouri State.
With Himmelman and Helt sitting out with minor injuries that should allow them to return for the Indiana State game, Cole Anderson took over at tackle and Normal Community graduate Garrett Hirsch became the center. Both are redshirt freshmen.
“The next guy has been ready,” Clark said. “It’s always going to come down to fundamentals, getting locked in on a game plan and being able to do that week in and week out. That’s going to be the challenge of a young offensive line.”
ISU head coach Brock Spack likes what he sees in the early going.
“We had no sacks Saturday to an athletic team that runs well. A big part of that is establishing the running game,” Spack said. “I’ve been very pleased with the progress. Your line of scrimmage guys have to be good players. They have to be smart and tough and process information.”
The Redbird blockers have paved the way for a balanced and productive attack. ISU is averaging 235 yards rushing and 243 passing while scoring 123 points.
“I’m satisfied where they’re at right now,” said Clark. “But you’re always pushing for more. I know what this conference (Missouri Valley) is going to give these guys. It’s a grind. It’s going to be a grind this next eight weeks.”
Clark will continue to harp on “attention to detail. Little penalties can come back to bite you. We don’t want that in a big game. In crucial situations, you’ve got to be error free and execute.”