Experience, depth and eye surgery should improve Illinois State’s offensive focus

Illinois State running back Cole Mueller rushed for 977 yards last season and credits off-season eye surgery with his improved receiving ability. (Photo by GoRedbirds.com)

By Dan Verdun

NORMAL — A season ago, freshman Cole Mueller emerged as the workhorse running back for Illinois State to the tune of nearly a 1,000-yard season. This fall’s offensive numbers may not approach that figure, yet it’s just fine with the sophomore.

“I would rather have won games,” Mueller said during ISU’s media day on the Hancock Stadium turf. “The yardage and recognition comes when you win . . . I’d rather have a 1,000-receiving yards as a team than 1,000 rushing if it meant we’d win more games.”

Yet, the reality remains that the hallmarks of a Brock Spack-coached team are a strong defense and a powerful running game.

Last week Mueller was named second team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference in a preseason vote. The 6-foot, 215-pounder is fresh off his breakout rookie season in which he ranked third in the MVFC in rushing yards (977), was fourth in rushing yards per game (88.8) and finished the season ranked in the Top 20 in the FCS in rush yards (No. 15) and yards per game (No. 20).

Mueller carried the ball 189 times in 2021, accounting for 47.8 percent of the team total.

A year later, Spack likes the depth he sees in the backfield.

“We’re deep for sure,” Spack said. “That’s a fact.”

The room where it happens

“It’s very deep,” Mueller said of the running back room. “Everybody could start any week and everybody can play. If someone goes down, we don’t have to worry about who goes in because he’s just as good as the guy in front of him.”

Joining Mueller is promising redshirt freshman Wenkers Wright along with veterans Pha’leak Brown, a sophomore, and Nigel White, a junior.

“I’m pleased with their development. Everybody is healthy coming back. Everybody brings a little bit something different to the table,” said Barrington native Sam Ojuri, second-year running backs coach.

“Cole Mueller is really intelligent. He’s tough. He’s faster than you think,” Ojuri said.

Ojuri noted that Brown is “one of our best well-rounded players as far as running, catching and pass pro (blocking)” while lauding White’s speed.

Saturday scrimmage

By this weekend, ISU will have completed seven practices. Mueller and Wright are listed as 1-2 respectively on the tailback depth chart heading into Saturday morning’s scrimmage.

Mueller, a native of Wentzville, Mo., noted that he and Wright have “pretty much have the same build, though his arms a little bit bigger. Same speed. Same moves. We’re pretty much identical.”

Of Mueller, Wright said, “I’m not going to lie. These past few weeks, Cole’s gotten a little shiftier than I remember him being. His vision is just crazy. It’s out of this world. Every move he makes is just right and he winds up finding himself in the end zone before he knows it.”

Ojuri mentioned the improvements he has seen in Wright, who was born in Haiti but prepped at Floyd Central High School in Indiana.

“Wenkers has done a good job. He came in with a lot of ability, we just had to hone it,” Ojuri said. “He’s got such a high ceiling.”

Vision quest

Mueller had medical procedures done on his nose and his Achilles tendon. He also had Lasik eye surgery.

“Seeing the ball sometimes (was difficult). I had an astigmatism, so sometimes the lights were blinding,” Mueller said. “I had the procedure done and it has made seeing the ball a lot easier.”

Ojuri said, “He’s seeing the ball en route better. We’ve been able to see such a drastic improvement in the way he’s catching the ball out of the air.”

Redbird news & notes

Five Illinois State players were voted onto the Missouri Valley Football Conference preseason team, which was released last week. Senior linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh was a first-team selection, while Mueller, offensive lineman Drew Bones, defensive lineman Braydon Deming and long snapper Joe Malinowski earned second-team honors . . . ISU was picked to finish eighth in the 11-team conference preseason poll conducted by league coaches, media, and sports information directors . . . The Redbirds open the 2022 season on Saturday, Sept. 3, against the Wisconsin Badgers. Kickoff is 6 p.m. at Camp Randall Stadium.

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