Sophomore free safety Dillon Gearhart (16) had two of the Redbirds’ six sacks in their victory Saturday against Valparaiso. (Photo by GoRedbirds.com)
By Barry Bottino
One word best described the first half of Illinois State’s victory against non-scholarship Valparaiso on Saturday at Hancock Stadium.
“It was a little sloppy for our standards,” ISU safety Dillon Gearhart said.
The sophomore responded after halftime, enjoying a breakthrough game in just his fifth career start, which resulted in the Redbirds’ 28-21 victory.
Gearhart had a career-best three tackles for loss and two sacks, a season-high six total tackles and his first career interception.
“Going into the second half, I knew I had to set the tone and just make a difference,” said Gearhart, a St. Charles East High School graduate.
Less than 90 seconds into the second half, Gearhart intercepted quarterback Mason Kaplan at Valpo’s 39-yard line. It was one of three interceptions the Redbirds collected in the second half.
After starting three games at strong safety last season, Gearhart said he is getting more comfortable in his role as the Redbirds’ free safety this fall.
“It was great experience,” he said of the 2021 season. “I learned the basics. Knowing both sides of the ball and knowing what my other teammates are doing really helps me overall at my position.”
Using safeties to blitz the quarterback is a key part of the ISU defensive attack and something Gearhart and his teammates take pride in.
“We love adding to the pass rush,” said Gearhart, who is tied for second on the team with two sacks along with fellow safety Sy Dabney. “We try to incorporate everyone in. It just adds to our game and what we can do with our defense.”
During a 50-second span in the fourth quarter Saturday, Gearhart collected both of his sacks to slow down Valpo’s offense during its frantic attempt to tie the game.
While he made plenty of strides on the field against Valparaiso, studying the game off the field has provided numerous benefits for Gearhart.
He describe his biggest improvement from last season as “understanding game situations, personnel, formations and tendencies,” Gearhart said. “I feel like I’ve gained a lot more experience in that area compared to last year.”
Gearhart will start his fourth consecutive game, dating back to last season, when the Redbirds (1-1) host Eastern Illinois (0-2) in the 110th version of the Mid-America Classic game at 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
Gearhart’s playing time last season came while learning from former high school teammate Clayton Isbell and fellow safety Iverson Brown, who left ISU via the transfer portal for Utah and Southern Illinois, respectively.
“Those guys really helped slow the game down for me,” he said.
Gearhart and Isbell attended middle school together before they were high school teammates.
“His junior year, he played more receiver and safety,” Gearhart said of Isbell. “His senior year, he played quarterback. We ran triple option. I started playing receiver at first. I played a little running back and then outside linebacker. That helped me transition to defense here.”
During the off-season, the Redbirds used the transfer portal to find depth in the secondary with Dabney (Bowling Green), Larry Tracy III (Indiana) and Deandre Lamont (Central Arkansas).
“I embraced it,” Gearhart said of the new arrivals. “I love them. Sy and Dre and Larry are really good dudes. They bring a lot of experience. They’re teaching me some things because this is my first year starting full-time.
“I like the competition,” he said. “They push me to be better.”