Five burning questions for 2023: Illinois State Redbirds edition

The biggest chore for Illinois State this off-season on defense will be replacing linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh, whose career year included being a candidate for the national Buck Buchanan Award. (Photo by

By Barry Bottino

Illinois State’s offense changed drastically between August and November. At one point, according to head coach Brock Spack, as many as eight players who began the season in the starting lineup were replaced because of injuries.

“We battled through a lot of adversity,” Spack said. “We had a lot of young guys who had to play that weren’t quite ready. But they went out and did a good job, and we were able to put together a winning season. They got a lot of playing time.”

ISU’s 6-5 record was a victory, considering the circumstances. But missing the FCS playoffs for the fifth time in the past six seasons is an unwelcome trend.

Prairie State Pigskin examines five key questions facing the Redbirds this off-season.

Who’s the next Zeke Vandenburgh?

There will be a new Jack linebacker in the lineup next season, but there’s not likely to be another Vandenburgh at Illinois State anytime soon.

Replacing the senior’s FCS-leading 14 sacks, along with 21 tackles for loss, won’t be easy. Vandenburgh’s production made him one of the Redbirds’ all-time greats on defense. His instincts and athleticism made Vandenburgh a one-of-a-kind game plan wrecker for opponents. On Monday, he was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference Defensive Player of the Year.

For the first nine games of the season, Matthew Wedig was listed as Vandenburgh’s backup. Wedig, who redshirted in 2019 and was listed as a sophomore on the ISU roster this fall, was among the 14 players to take part in Senior Day activities earlier this month.

Late in the season, the Redbirds listed junior Jalan Gaines, a graduate of Oak Lawn (Ill.) High School, as the second-team Jack. In 2021, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Gaines had four sacks and five tackles for loss while playing defensive end at NCAA Division III University of Dubuque.

What’s the next step for the ISU passing game?

Minnesota transfer Zack Annexstad was an important addition at the quarterback position, despite missing the final three games with a shoulder injury.

His 62.8% completion percentage was the best for an ISU starter since 2012. Annexstad was highly effective in getting numerous players involved in the offense as nine different players had at least 10 receptions. Eight different players had a receiving touchdown as well, including three by breakout receiver Daniel Sobkowicz, who began his career as a walk-on before being awarded a scholarship in fall camp.

On the flip side, the Redbirds had the third-lowest yards per attempt (6.14) and fourth-fewest passing yards per game (175.73) in the MVFC. They also had the second-most interceptions (nine).

Speedy sophomore Jalen Carr led the team with 32 catches and provides a matchup advantage, but he had only one reception that went for longer than 30 yards. Using the speed of Carr and junior Jerome Buckner (eight catches, 162 yards) down the field more often next season could be the next level for the ISU passing game.

Which young players showed glimpses of future potential?

Redshirt freshmen Wenkers Wright and Sobkowicz started seven and six games, respectively.

Wright began the season as the “2” in the 1-2 running back rotation with Cole Mueller. After Mueller was injured in the season opener and missed the entire year, Wright led the team in rushing (625 yards) despite also dealing with injuries.

Sobkowicz was the feel-good story of the season. He started six games and led ISU in receiving yards (377) and touchdowns (three). His 31 receptions ranked one behind team leader Jalen Carr’s 32.

Up front, offensive lineman Ryan Gudaitis, another redshirt freshman, earned six starts.

On defense, sophomore safety Keondre Jackson started the first 10 games of his career this fall and had 46 tackles and an interception. Sophomore cornerback Jeff Bowens had 38 tackles, two interceptions and two pass breakups while starting five games.

Which position groups are likely to get reshuffled?

On offense, the obvious ones are wide receiver and tight end. Within days of the end of the season, the receiver group got thinner as sophomore J’Kalon Carter, junior Jabari Khepera and sophomore TreShawn Watson all entered the transfer portal. Brock Annexstad, who had 14 receptions and a touchdown this season, and Tristan Bailey, who started three games, were honored on Senior Day.

The Redbirds lose their top two tight ends – Tanner Taula and Bryson Deming – who combined for 48 receptions and three TDs.

Center Drew Bones, who started 42 games at ISU, is the only departing senior on the offensive line, but the Redbirds are actively offering junior college and transfer portal linemen. Eight different offensive linemen started games this season for ISU up front because of injuries.

On defense, three Monday announcements changed the secondary abruptly. Cornerbacks Franky West and Deandre Lamont, who both started 10 games this fall, left the program. West jumped in to the transfer portal while Lamont decided to pursue a pro career. Another transfer portal loss was reserve defensive back Braden Price, who has nine career starts.

Three starting defensive linemen – ends Jason Lewan and Braydon Deming and nose tackle Noah Hickcox – all were Senior Day honorees.

Is a return to the FCS playoffs possible in 2023?

An overtime win against Western Illinois in the regular-season finale secured ISU’s 11th winning record in the past 14 seasons.

But collecting 6-5 campaigns isn’t the goal in Normal. The Redbirds have missed the postseason in five of the past six seasons.

One look at the 2023 schedule seems to offer an opportunity for seven, eight or perhaps nine wins and a likely playoff berth out of the MVFC.

For the sixth time in the last seven fall seasons, the Redbirds will host a team from the non-scholarship FCS Pioneer League. Dayton (5-6) visits Normal Sept. 2 to kick off an opening month that includes a road game at MVFC rival Western Illinois (0-11), a visit to Eastern Illinois (2-9) and a home contest against Lindenwood (7-3), a former Division II school that went 1-3 in conference in its first season in the Ohio Valley this fall.

Over the next two seasons, the newly revised MVFC schedule has ISU missing North Dakota State, in-state rival Southern Illinois and South Dakota. New league member Murray State – which was 2-9 in its final OVC season this fall – does appear on the Redbirds’ schedule in 2023 and 2024.

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