Illinois State’s new-look secondary has shined, but big test against SIU lies ahead

Illinois State cornerback Franky West tackles Eastern Illinois wide receiver Justin Thomas. West will make his 11th career start this week. (Photo by Ashanti Thomas, Daily Eastern News)

By Barry Bottino

From last fall to today, perhaps no position group at Illinois State has seen as much change as the secondary.

Only one starter from the 2021 season finale – sophomore free safety Dillon Gearhart – remains in the lineup. The addition of three new faces via the transfer portal and the development of several young players has changed the depth chart considerably.

The changes haven’t meant a dropoff in results, however.

“I credit a lot to our coaches,” said junior cornerback Franky West, who has the most career starts at ISU among the group with 10. “They recruited guys who all bought in to the same goal — to make each other better.”

Through four games, Illinois State’s defensive backfield — which includes Central Arkansas transfer Deandre Lamont, a senior cornerback, and sophomore strong safety Keondre Jackson in the starting lineup – has shined.  

The Redbirds are the second-best pass defense in the Missouri Valley Football Conference and rank 19th nationally, allowing 179 passing yards a game.

Four different players have interceptions for ISU, including two each for West and second-string cornerback Jeff Bowens, a sophomore. Ten different defensive players have a pass breakup. Gearhart and Bowling Green transfer Sy Dabney, a senior safety, each have two interceptions.

West credited the group’s preparation and trust in each other for its success.

“Anybody can be put in the game, whether you’re a freshman, second string, third string,” West said. “Your time can come at any moment, so you have to be ready for that moment.”

Illinois State (2-1) has a big moment Saturday when it hosts No. 19 Southern Illinois (2-2) at 6:30 p.m. at Hancock Stadium in Normal for an MVFC game.

SIU quarterback Nic Baker leads the conference with 10 passing touchdowns. Six players, including standout senior wide receiver Avante Cox, have caught at least one touchdown and four different players have at least 12 receptions.

“They have a bunch of playmakers on that offense that we have to put bodies on,” West said. “They do a lot of the little things well. You don’t see them beating themselves a lot.”

This week’s opponent

SIU’s fall campaign has been a tale of seasons. In Weeks 1 and 2, SIU allowed 98 combined points in losses to Incarnate Word and Southeast Missouri. In Weeks 3 and 4, the Salukis enjoyed a revival with a win at Northwestern and a 17-point victory against MVFC foe North Dakota. … On a team with several prolific receivers, junior fullback Jacob Garrett leads the Salukis with four touchdown catches. Two of those came in the win against Northwestern.

(Kickoff: 6:30 p.m.; TV: Marquee Sports Network; Radio:

Key matchup to watch

ISU defense vs. Javon Williams Jr.: Williams, SIU’s senior running back, has scored more than 30 career touchdowns combined on the ground, through the air and as a receiver. This year, he has no touchdowns through four games. But his impact is something every opponent must account for on Saturdays. Williams is a powerful runner, a good passer and a threat as a receiver. The Redbirds will have to keep a close eye on the Salukis’ triple threat.

What’s at stake?

Getting off to a good start in MVFC play will be important for ISU, which has three road games in October, including at Northern Iowa and at North Dakota State.

Quick hits

With Cole Mueller, last year’s leading rusher, likely out for the season with a leg injury and his replacement, Wenkers Wright, recently sustaining a shoulder injury, ISU lists sophomore Pha’leak Brown as its starter this week. Brown has rushed for 515 career yards (4.1 a carry) and scored three touchdowns. As a team, the Redbirds have only two rushing touchdowns this fall. … Through three games, 14 different ISU players have caught at least one pass. Tight end Bryson Deming (eight catches) and wide receiver Daniel Sobkowicz (108 yards) are the team leaders. … Saturday’s matchup is a meeting of the top two teams in the MVFC in sacks. SIU’s defense has 14, while ISU boasts 13.

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