By Steve Robinson | August 6, 2019 - 10:41 pm
Posted in Category: ISU Redbirds, The Normalite

NORMAL – Considering how training camp has gotten off to a positive start for the Redbirds of Illinois State University, ISU head coach told reporters he believes opponents will see how his team plays and make note of how improved they are in 2019.

The Redbirds’ last three seasons have seen a team slide downhill: Tying for 4th with a 6-6 overall and 4-4 Missouri Valley Football Conference record and losing a first round FCS contest in 2016, followed by repeating 4-4 in 2017 in Conference and going 6-5 overall but not qualifying for playoffs, tying for 6th. Last season ended with ISU finishing with the worst Conference record a Spack Redbird-coached team had experienced to that point – 3-5. Understandably, Spack said he wants to reverse course.

“You always hope you are further off in the game than you were last year,” head coach Brock Spack told reporters on Media Day at Hancock Stadium on Aug. 6. “The team has prepared and they are farther ahead of where they were this time last year, which is good.”

But that being said, Spack added, “There are still some questions and those won’t be answered until we play an opponent.” He said it appeared his players had worked a little more on conditioning during the off-season than, perhaps in past years. “This team seems to hold itself accountable, which is very nice,” explained Spack, who is entering his 11th year at the Redbirds’ helm having tallied an overall record of 74-45. That includes a MVFC record of 48-32 which counts among the games played one FCS Championship Game loss in 2014 and three other playoff appearances – quarterfinal appearances in 2012 and 2015, and a loss in the first round in 2016.

This past off-season, Spack issued a challenge to his players to pay attention to their weight and workout habits. He divided his players into eight squads, the winners getting dinner at the coach’s house. “It made it kind of pleasurable because the guys were kind of governing themselves, which is what you want,” Spack said.

In terms of academics, the team has achieved a combined grade point average of 3.0, Spack added. “That’s a huge, huge indicator for where our team is at from an attitude standpoint. They are taking pride in everything they do and in what they have to do to be a champion.”

Seven Local Players Look To Contribute: A total of seven Redbirds players are local guys – three each from Normal and Bloomington, and one who calls Towanda home. Of this group, all three who hail from Normal are Redshirt freshmen. That includes wide receiver Nick Hesse, a Normal Community High School alum. His turn on the field is on hold for the time being as he is recovering from a sprained ankle. “We’ll see what happens after I talk to the doctor,” he said. He optimistically said he would like to be out battling with his teammates by week two of the season – the home opener against non-conference foe Morehead State. Once the ankle is totally healed, “I definitely want to see some action this year,” he said.

Junior offensive lineman Garrett Hirsch attributed the team’s poor finish last year to what he saw was “a lot of negativity” he thought was present last year, especially when, he added, “we thought we were better than we were. So this year, we’re trying to keep that negativity out of here. As a group, that is what we decided we were going to do this season. That’s why I think we’re going to much more successful than we have been in the past.”

Having sat out as required last year, Peter Bussone will be a redshirt freshman this year ready to keep opposing defenders at bay as an offensive lineman. The 6 foot-2, 305 pound Bussone said he has learned plenty about the mental toughness needed to go from the high school game where he played at Normal Community High School to the college game. A former nose guard, he said he realizes the game from that position switch is different than he had experienced previously. “I’m just ready, for when an opportunity strikes, to get onto the field this year,” he said.

Like Bussone, redshirt freshman Dalton Tevis sat out last year but is looking forward to seeing action this season playing outside linebacker trying to open holes to get through to quarterbacks and running backs. A Normal Community High School grad, Tevis said he wants to have a depth of knowledge of the playbook, “so that I don’t make any mistakes mentally.” He adds though that, “We practice so much that I know I will be in the right spot at the right time.” For Tevis, being on the team is a dream come true, having gone to football youth camps set up by ISU since he was in grade school. Being a player now on the team “is a dream come true,” he said.

Having transferred from Division II South Dakota-based Augustana University to ISU, freshman defensive back Franky West, a Normal Community West High School alum, said he is looking forward to playing, once again, for the home crowd. To comply with NCAA rules, the 5 foot-10, 170 pound defensive back will sit out this season and be ready to play for the Redbirds next season. His father, Frank Sr., played for ISU in the 1980s and played in two and won one Canadian Football League Grey Cup Championship game with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Until he gets to play next season, the younger West is on the Redbirds’ scout team helping play the role of the upcoming Redbirds opponent, and said he is looking forward to competing on behalf of ISU.

Sophomore defensive lineman and Bloomington High alum John Ridgeway saw action last season – “about 50 snaps a game” by his count – and the experience last season “gave me a chance to show my talents.” He said the biggest change playing at this level versus in high school is “I’m usually surrounded by dudes who are my size if not bigger.” But since Ridgeway is listed at 6 foot-6 and 325 pounds, being around opponents of similar strength wasn’t intimidating, he said.

A redshirt freshman last year, long snapper Joey Malinowski said he is looking forward to getting in some action on the turf this season. The 6 foot-1, 250 pound Central Catholic product is spending training camp trying “to work myself into the standard rotation for points after touchdown and punting situations. Right now, in training camp, I’m just trying to perfect the craft I’m working on and be as prepared when that time comes.”

Circle Your Calendars: ISU opens the season on the road at Northern Illinois Saturday, Aug. 31. Spack’s Redbirds play before a home crowd at Hancock Stadium Sept. 7 in a non-conference contest against Morehead State, starting with a 6:30p.m. kickoff. The Redbirds’ first Missouri Valley Football Conference opponent will be Saturday, Oct. 5 when North Dakota State visits Hancock Stadium for a 12 Noon game. Indiana State visits for Homecoming 2p.m. game on Oct. 26, and Missouri State closes out the home schedule for the Redbirds on Senior Day for a 12 Noon kickoff.

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