Redshirt freshman running back Wenkers Wright (32) is expected to start his first career game against Valparaiso. (Photo by GoRedbirds.com)
By Barry Bottino
Illinois State’s 1-2 punch at running back will debut a new No. 1 Saturday in its home opener against Valparaiso.
Redshirt freshman Wenkers Wright is expected to start his first career game when the Redbirds (0-1) play their home opener at 6:30 p.m. against the Beacons (1-0), who are a member of the non-scholarship FCS Pioneer Football League.
Wright takes over after sophomore Cole Muller, the Redbirds’ leading rusher a season ago, sustained a broken left fibula on his third carry of the season last week at Wisconsin.
“Cole is one of our best offensive players,” ISU head coach Brock Spack said. “He has a real knack for running the football. It’s hard to replace that.”
Mueller’s injury, according to Spack, will entail a four-month rehab process, which makes his return this season doubtful.
Wright, who has 10 career carries, is no stranger to success. As a high school player in Indiana, he rushed for nearly 4,200 yards and scored 51 touchdowns. Last week, he caught two passes for 37 yards, highlighted by a 26-yard gain.
“He had some nice runs,” Spack said of Wright’s debut at Wisconsin, which netted 16 yards on eight carries. “Wenkers caught a big pass out of the backfield. He’s worked hard on his hands.”
With Mueller out, plenty of hands are likely to be part of the ISU rotation, including junior Nigel White and sophomore Pha’Leak Brown, who rushed for 22 and 10 yards, respectively, against the Badgers.
“Our tailback room is talented,” Spack said. “There’s no jealousy or animosity about who gets how many touches. I expect them to pick up the slack as we move forward.”
This week’s opponent
Valparaiso (1-0) used a 50-yard field goal with 1:36 remaining in the game last weekend to secure a 20-17 victory against NAIA Indiana Wesleyan. In a preseason poll of league coaches, the Beacons were voted to finish eighth in the 11-team PFL. The program posted .500 or better conference records in 2020 and 2021, the first time Valpo has achieved that feat in more than 20 years.
(Kickoff: 6:30 p.m.; TV: Marquee Sports Network; Radio: WJBC.com)
Key matchup to watch
ISU passing game vs. Valpo defense: Making his first collegiate start in nearly four years, ISU quarterback Zack Annexstad completed 67% of his passes against Wisconsin, connecting with eight different receivers. He will face a Valpo defense that ranked eighth in the PFL a year ago against the pass and allowed NAIA Indiana Wesleyan to throw for 273 yards last week, including a 72-yard scoring play through the air.
What’s at stake?
Illinois State is seeking its first win of the season. Over the past four meetings against Pioneer Football League opponents dating back to 2016, the Redbirds have outscored the opposition, 186-34.
Three ISU defensive players – junior linebacker Cade Campos, sophomore safety Keondre Jackson and junior linebacker Jeremiah Jordan – all made their first career starts against Wisconsin last week. … Also making his first career start, redshirt freshman wide receiver Daniel Sobkowicz led ISU with 41 receiving yards on two receptions. He was one of six players to catch two passes in the game.