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NORMAL - The Illinois State football team was listed 23rd in the final regular season Division I-AA rankings.

That, along with a 7-4 record, was not enough to land the Redbirds a playoff berth.

With a multitude of starters returning, ISU will likely rank higher in the 2006 preseason poll. And, the playoffs will again be a goal, maybe even an expectation.

"We're disappointed we didn't make the playoffs," said Redbirds' coach Denver Johnson. "But we're past that and looking forward. The jazz level around here with the returning players is higher than I've seen it."

Anticipation figures to build throughout the offseason for a team that will return the Gateway's leader in total offense (quarterback Luke Drone), a Walter Payton Award nominee (receiver Laurent Robinson) and a running back who rushed for 272 yards and six touchdowns in one game (Pierre Rembert).

And that's just the offense.

Defensively, Buck Buchanan Award candidate Cameron Siskowic leads a pack of experienced linebackers.

"We've got some big holes on the offensive and defensive line, but we've got some really underrated players coming up through the system," Siskowic said. "We were dominant at times. If we can put it all together, it looks like the sky's the limit."

An abundance of linebackers has Johnson pondering a switch to a 3-4 defense for next season. Kye Stewart and Niall Campbell join Siskowic as returning starters, and key reserves Bill Hronec and Pat Cucci also return.

And, the Redbirds will have a promising trio of redshirt freshman linebackers next fall in Kyle Siskowic (Cameron's brother), Brent Gritton and Clinton's J.W. Sheering.

"We're getting rich at linebackers, guys who can really run," said Johnson. "We're pretty excited about the group of linebackers we have. If we can't find a guy like (Brent) Hawkins to be a down (lineman) guy, we may play with three and get as many linebackers on the field as we can."

While sack master Hawkins was a senior this past season, the Redbirds do return linemen with experience in Justin Martindale, Jarek Thomas, James Stevenson and Kaschiev Hunter.

Johnson expects lineman Chance Allard, who missed most of the season with a knee injury, to be a key player in 2006.

"If he doesn't play on defense, we'll make a tight end out of him," said the Redbird coach. "He's a good football player. He'll help us somewhere."

The secondary returns starters in cornerback Jesse Caesar and strong safety James Temple. Free safeties Tom Nelson and Nick Passarelli also have starting experience.

"I thought we did get better back there this year. We really cut down on major mistakes and made some things happen back there," Johnson said. "I think (cornerback) Mitchell Matthews has a chance to be a really outstanding player. If he can get focused and decides he wants to be a great player, he's got all the tools to be a truly great one.

"You always try to improve yourself in the back end. We're looking at a couple of good corners we hope we have a chance to sign."

The Redbird offense should again be strong after leading the Gateway Conference in scoring (39.2 points), passing (268.7 yards) and total offense (a school-record 477.5 yards).

The Drone-Robinson-Rembert trifecta has the support of other key returning skill position players in tailback brothers Rafael Rice and Cortes Rice, receivers Pierre Jackson and Jason Horton and tight end Dave Mordis.

"We're really excited about what we're capable of doing next year," said Robinson, who caught 86 passes for 1,465 yards last season to earn Gateway Offensive Player of the Year honors. "We're going to be tough to stop next year."

The offensive line must replace graduated center Stafford Davis, a first team all-Gateway selection, and guard Mike Stegeman, a second team pick.

Back on that line are guard Janiah Downing and tackles Barry Hartman and Isaiah Wiggins. Joe Niklasch is the top candidate to take either Davis' or Stegeman's spot.

Johnson said linemen on both sides of the ball will be the priority for a recruiting class he expects to number 12 to 15.

"We need to stock up. We kind of robbed Peter to pay Paul the last couple of years because we had more pressing needs in other places," he said. "Then we'll look at everything else and see what we can get done."

ISU needs to recruit a punter after losing Gateway all-star Ryan Hoffman to graduation. A place-kicker also could be brought in after the Redbirds got mixed results from freshmen Kevin Mazur and Bobby Kelsey.

Mazur connected on 9 of 13 field goal attempts but tried just one field goal from beyond 40 yards. Kelsey has a stronger leg but needs to improve his accuracy.

"Kickoffs and our ability to attempt long field goals was disappointing," said Johnson. "We've got to correct that either in-house or bring somebody else in."

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