NORMAL — As the Illinois State football team begins spring drills Sunday at Hancock Stadium, Redbirds coach Brock Spack expects a productive set of 15 practices for a variety of reasons.
"I really like where we're at. The vibe is very positive around here," Spack said. "We expect to be very good, but we have a lot of work to do. We'll see if we can make the strides we hope to make."
Part of Spack's optimism stems from sheer numbers.
"Going into spring this is the deepest the team has ever been. We haven't had the numbers come back like this," said the ISU coach. "Receivers, backs, offensive line, the whole defense, we're just deeper than we were last spring."
Spack has a 74-45 record over his first 10 seasons at ISU. Yet the Redbirds have fallen short of the FCS playoffs the past two seasons and have not won a playoff game since 2015.
"Our players had such a good offseason," Spack said. "Winter conditioning was so good. Our testing was great. The weight room was outstanding. Numbers went way up. We're light years ahead of where we were last year at this time."
One area that is a bit thin this spring is quarterback. Brady Davis returns for his second season as starter after passing for 1,935 yards and 19 touchdowns last season.
But the Redbirds lost backup quarterback Jake Kolbe to graduation, and reserve signal-caller Tristan Smith has decided to graduate early this spring and transfer elsewhere. That leaves redshirt freshman Bryce Jefferson as the only other quarterback on the roster before freshmen recruits Jack Baltz and Britton Morris arrive on campus this summer.
"We're going to get Bryce a lot of reps and see how he handles that," said Spack.
Senior tailback James Robinson will be largely a spectator during spring drills after rushing for 1,290 yards and 12 touchdowns. Robinson has proven himself and Spack sees no need to risk injury in the spring.
"Other than individual drills and working on the side, you won't see him a whole lot," Spack said. "We've got some young backs we want to take a look at in (Jeffrey) Proctor, Kevin Brown and Brian Adams. Three more (incoming freshmen tailbacks) get started, and we need to take a look at them, too."
The Redbird coach is enthused about his wide receiver group despite the graduation of top pass-catcher Spencer Schnell. Andrew Edgar (44 receptions, 746 yards) was a national Freshman of the Year candidate, and Braxton Haley, Austin Nagel and Taylor Grimes also saw action.
ISU added receiver Cole Blackman as a transfer from Virginia, and Spack is high on redshirt freshmen Eric Rogers, Stephen Halusan and Tristan Bailey.
"That's a good-looking crew," said Spack of his receivers. "We have speed there as well. It's a nice combination of speed and size, and they are going to be here awhile."
The offensive line returns Drew Himmelman, Gabe Megginson, Drew Bones, Garrett Hirsch, Jared Rients and Cole Anderson with starting experience. Illinois transfer Adam Solomon and redshirt freshman Peyton Asche will compete for the starting tackle spot vacated by Donavin O'Day.
"I'm really high on Asche. He's a hard worker and loves the weight room. He's 6-7 and already 310 (pounds). He is definitely in the mix," Spack said. "I've been very impressed with Solomon. He's a big, physical guy, and he's got an edge to him. Illinois made a late push to keep him, and I can see why."
Defensively, the Redbirds welcome back their second through sixth leading tacklers in all-conference safety Luther Kirk, second team cornerback Devin Taylor, linebackers Ty DeForest and Tuvone Clark and end Romeo McKnight.
The secondary also has promising young cornerbacks in Charles Woods and Iverson Brown, while Jarrell Jackson returns from knee surgery.
"Jarrell has been fun to watch. He is fast," Spack said. "He's a completely different guy. You could see how much he missed it last fall."
Christian Uphoff is the top contender to replace departed safety Mitchell Brees with Peyton Jones, Mike Gardner and Clayton Isbell also in the picture.
Iowa linebacker transfer Aaron Mends could be the replacement for 2018 top tackler Zack Mathews. But Mends won't see a lot of spring work while rehabilitating a knee injury.
Zeke Vandenburgh will be at Mathews' spot this spring and also can play inside along with DeForest.
The defensive line features John Ridgeway, Jason Lewan, Jacob Powell and Steven Podkuski inside with Clark, McKnight and transfer Blake Fehrmann on the edge.
The Redbirds converted just 7 of 15 field goal attempts last season and did not hit one from 40-plus yards.
JT Bohlken and Sam Fenlason shared the place-kicking duties last season, but Spack would prefer Bohlken only punt.
Although Spack would take on a transfer kicker if one became available, he believes Fenlason and redshirt freshmen Trevor Bond and Aiden Bresnahan have improved significantly over the offseason.
ISU's annual public Spring Showcase is set for April 13 at 1 p.m.