ISU’s Vandenburgh primed for strong run at Buchanan Award, national experts say

Illinois State redshirt senior Zeke Vandenburgh has already won the Missouri Valley Football Conference Defensive Player of the Year Award. (Photo by

By Dan Verdun

As exhibited by the postseason honors bestowed upon him, Illinois State redshirt senior Zeke Vandenburgh enjoyed a season for the ages of Redbird lore.

Playing a hybrid linebacker position dubbed “Jack” on the ISU defense, Vandenburgh has already taken home Missouri Valley Football Conference Defensive Player of the Year.

In addition, he recently accepted an invitation to play in the Hula Bowl, recognized as one of the nation’s top college football all-star games.

Perhaps, the best is yet to come

Vandenburgh has a strong chance of being listed when the top three vote getters for the Buck Buchanan Award, given annually to the best FCS defensive player, are revealed Tuesday.

The Buchanan Award, first presented in 1995, is named for Hall of Fame defensive lineman Junious “Buck” Buchanan, who starred at Grambling State.

National FCS writers Sam Herder and Brian McLaughlin both told Prairie State Pigskin they each have Vandenburgh No. 1 on their Buchanan ballots.

“The Buck seems to usually go to a linebacker who has a ton of tackles, or an edge player with a lot of tackles for loss and sacks,” Herder said. “Vandenburgh has all of those things checked off. I think he was the most disruptive defensive player in the FCS this year.”

“Zeke was No. 1 on my Buchanan ballot. How could he not be?” McLaughlin said. “Monster season, awesome league he plays in, team was on the verge of being a playoff team. And who are we kidding, if Illinois State is in about 90 percent of the other conferences, the Redbirds are in the FCS postseason.”

Craig Haley, Stats Perform/The Analyst FCS Senior Editor, had Vandenburgh second on his ballot behind Chattanooga edge Jay Person. Haley posted his votes on social media this week, stating he was one of 54 voters.

The top three finalists receive an invitation to the awards ceremony held in Frisco, Texas the day before the Jan. 8 FCS national championship game.

Disruptive ‘n dominant

Vandenburgh, a Freeport High School graduate, ranked No. 1 in the FCS in sacks per game and tackles for loss per game.

Listed at at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, Vandenburgh led the MVFC in sacks (14) and tackles for loss (21), and he was third in the league in tackles (100).

He recorded three or more sacks in three different games, including in the final two contests of the season.

Vandenburgh posted six double-digit tackle efforts, including a career-high 17 in the finale against Western Illinois. He also bagged a career-best 3.5 sacks in the win over the rival Leathernecks.

The Florida-based McLaughlin said, “I had it Zeke, Elon’s Marcus Hillman and Delaware’s Johnny Buchanan as my 1, 2, 3 (in voting), and I promise I put a lot of thought into this stuff.”

“Voters vote for their top five, and I think he has a good shot to be top three in a lot of ballots,” Herder said of Vandenburgh.

Local history

Former Illinois State linebacker James “Boomer” Grigsby was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame this year.

Grigsby was a three-time finalist in the Buchanan Award voting. Moreover, he is the only player in the history of the award to finish in the top three for three consecutive years (2002-04).

Boomer Grigsby

Grigsby, a three-time first-team All-American and the FCS career leader in total (550) and solo (325) tackles, is among the most celebrated players in FCS history.

The Canton native was a three-time MVFC Defensive Player of the Year, making him the only player in league history to accomplish the feat.

Grigsby twice won the College Sporting News FCS Defensive Player of the Year award.

Western Illinois stars James Milton (1998) and Edgerton Hartwell (2000) both won the Buchanan Award.

In 2017, WIU linebacker Brett Taylor was one of the three finalists invited to Frisco.

This year’s Buck Buchanan Award Finalists (source:

  • DL Ty French | Gardner-Webb
  • DL Malik Hamm | Lafayette
  • DL Jake Heimlicher | Penn
  • DL Jay Person | Chattanooga
  • DL Caleb Sanders | South Dakota State
  • DL Spencer Waege | North Dakota State
  • DL David Walker | Central Arkansas
  • LB Joe Andreessen | Bryant
  • LB Kelechi Anyalebechi | UIW
  • LB Johnny Buchanan | Delaware
  • LB Rodney Dansby | Houston Christian
  • LB BJ Davis | South Carolina State
  • LB John Ford II | UT Martin
  • LB Kavian Gaither | Sam Houston
  • LB Ryan Greenhagen | Fordham
  • LB Aubrey Miller Jr. | Jackson State
  • LB Bryce Norman | Southeast Missouri State
  • LB John Pius | William & Mary
  • LB Winston Reid | Weber State
  • LB Stone Snyder | VMI
  • LB Chizi Umunakwe | Central Connecticut
  • LB Zeke Vandenburgh | Illinois State
  • LB Tristan Wheeler | Richmond
  • LB Antione Wiliams | Austin Peay
  • DB Khalil Baker | North Carolina Central
  • DB Luke Glenna | St. Thomas
  • DB Robby Hauck | Montana
  • DB Marcus Hillman | Elon
  • DB Alijah Huzzie | ETSU
  • DB Marte Mapu | Sacramento State

One response to “ISU’s Vandenburgh primed for strong run at Buchanan Award, national experts say”

  1. […] He is one of three finalists for the FCS Buck Buchanan Award, given to the best defensive player in the nation. Two national FCS writers told Prairie State Pigskin last month that they had Vandenburgh listed No. 1 on their ballots. (😉 […]


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