Franky West (center) had four tackles and a game-high three pass breakups during the annual Illinois State spring football game. (Photo by GoRedbirds.com)
By Barry Bottino
NORMAL — Having a few butterflies was understandable for Franky West in his first collegiate start last fall.
The Normal Community High School grad got the call to start at cornerback Oct. 21 in Illinois State’s home game against FCS powerhouse North Dakota State.
“Obviously it’s going to be a big game,” West said of playing the defending national champions. “I was kind of raw, kind of nervous … but excited.”
West’s first assignment as a redshirt freshman was to match up against NDSU wide receiver Christian Watson, who is predicted to be a first-round choice in ESPN’s latest NFL mock draft.
“After the first few plays, I was like, ‘OK, I’m simmering down,’” West recalled. “This is good. I’m going to keep doing what I do.”
This spring, a more relaxed and confident West has shown he will be a key member of the Redbirds’ new-look secondary in 2022.
Though West’s team lost, 21-20, on Saturday in Normal in ISU’s annual spring game, he had four total tackles and a game-high three pass breakups, including one in the end zone.
“I think I’ve developed more into the system,” West said. “I was able to calm down this spring and I feel a lot better. I understand the defense a lot better, and I feel like I can make more plays.
“I had a good workday, he said of the team’s scrimmage. “I wanted to focus on getting the ball out the best I could and working my hands.”
Despite playing in only nine of ISU’s 11 games last season, West finished second on the team in pass breakups (five) and ninth in total tackles (35).
Last October, West was part of a starting group that included fellow corner Jarrell Jackson, who completed his career last season, and safeties Clayton Isbell and Iverson Brown, who both left ISU’s program via the transfer portal this off-season.
In Saturday’s scrimmage, key players in the secondary were sophomore Cam Wilson (seven tackles), redshirt freshman Jack Dwyer (six tackles, two sacks, three tackles for loss), sophomore Pete Zuccollo (six tackles), sophomore Dillon Gearhart, (five tackles, one pass breakup), sophomore Keondre Jackson (five tackles, one pass breakup) and sophomore Braden Price (three tackles, one TFL).
The young core of defensive backs provides a chance for numerous players to step forward.
“I believe it’s an opportunity,” West said. “Last year, I was considered a new guy. I’d been here for two years and I stepped up when they needed me. These young guys are talented, and they’re going to step up when they’re needed.”
The linebacking corps in front of ISU’s young secondary provides plenty of experience, with 45 starts among senior Zeke Vandenburgh and juniors Damien Jackson and Kenton Wilhoit.
“You’ve got to be a leader on and off the field with younger players,” said Jackson, who had five tackles and two sacks Saturday. “You’ve got to show them the way. Teach them the way.”
Like West, Jackson stepped in at a key moment last fall, when Brandon Simon went down with a season-ending injury against Eastern Illinois. Jackson started eight games and finished with 44 tackles, the sixth-highest total on the team.
“You’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity you can,” he said. “I had to respond. It was really valuable (experience).”