Summer critique, new position turned ISU’s Vandenburgh from good to great

Zeke Vandenburgh’s remarkable final season at Illinois State earned him national recognition and a spot in the Hula Bowl. (Photo by

By Barry Bottino

On a 90-degree day two summers ago, Brock Spack sat at the desk in his office in Illinois State University’s Kaufman Football Building. Seated behind him was ISU linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh.

Seeking a critique of his play, Vandenburgh asked Spack – a former Big Ten linebacker at Purdue and defensive coordinator for 12 years at his alma mater – for some insight.

“I said, ‘You sure you want to do that?’” Spack recalled. “I’m going to be very critical.”

The pair went through 80-plus plays that Spack put together on video, nitpicking the details of Vandenburgh’s game.

“We went through all of them – from run fits to getting off blocks to pass rush techniques to all kinds of stuff,” Spack said. “We tore it down. Afterward I said, ‘What do you think?’”

“He said, ‘I’m not very good. I’ve got to change.’”

Saturday in Frisco, Texas, the site of the FCS national championship game, Vandenburgh will reap the rewards of his changes.

He is one of three finalists for the FCS Buck Buchanan Award, given annually 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.

From Sam to Jack

As a sixth-year player in 2022, Vandenburgh’s numbers were remarkable – an FCS-leading 14 sacks, along with 100 tackles and 21 tackles for loss.

His impact on games can be traced to Vandenburgh’s suggestion to ISU outside linebackers coach Kye Stewart that he change positions – from the strong-side “Sam” spot, who plays near the field side of the formation, to the hybrid “Jack” position, which plays closest to the boundary and near the line of scrimmage.

“I was reviewing game film from the 2021 season and doing a self-assessment,” said Vandenburgh, a Freeport High School graduate. “I felt like it was easier to take the outside linebacker to the field side – to remove him from a game and make him a non-factor, just based off of formation.”

Because the Jack starts close to the line of scrimmage, the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Vandenburgh believed he could influence games more consistently.

This season was also his final chance to make an impact in the eyes of professional scouts.

In three previous seasons combined, Vandenburgh compiled 10 sacks and 19 tackles for loss.

“I felt like my back was up against the wall, like this was it,” he said. “I had to have a great season to keep the dream alive and keep playing football.”

Season of a lifetime

On Nov. 19, Vandenburgh’s impact was felt full force with 3.5 sacks, four tackles for loss and 17 total tackles in a win against Western Illinois.

Nine days later, he was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference Defensive Player of the Year and has since earned numerous All-America honors.

Saturday, he will be on stage with fellow finalists John Pius, an outside linebacker from William & Mary, and defensive end David Walker of Central Arkansas.

The reality of being among the nation’s top defensive players still hasn’t set in.

“It doesn’t seem real at times,” he said. “It’s a really humbling experience. I had never even had (the Buchanan Award) as a goal of mine until this past season. When you’re playing week to week, you don’t dwell on your success.

“When you get to the end of the season, you’re just in awe of how far you’ve come,” he said.

Spack said Vandenburgh’s athleticism and quickness became multiplied the closer he got to the line of scrimmage, especially when going against much larger offensive linemen.

“He became an athletic mismatch,” Spack said. “He causes people problems. I don’t know that we saw this dominant of a player coming.”

Stewart added: “It allowed him to show his talent more. He’s a high-IQ guy, so putting him at the line of scrimmage helped everybody out.”

Vandenburgh’s season also has provided Stewart with a story of persistence to tell young players.

“My outside linebackers now have a picture of what it’s like to put in the work in the off-season and know if you want to be successful, here’s what it looks like,” Stewart said.

“When we had our exit meetings (this fall), I said, ‘Zeke had four sacks as a junior. He didn’t have 14 all of a sudden. He put in the work.’ It was the perfect position for him.”

Call from a Hall (of Famer)

When former Illinois State linebacker Boomer Grigsby returned to campus in October to be honored for his selection to the College Football Hall of Fame, he met Vandenburgh at Spack’s weekly radio show.

“We chatted and he gave me his number,” Vandenburgh said. “I reached out to him after the season just to get some advice on the pre-draft process. He’s definitely someone who I value his opinion.”

While in Las Vegas for his Hall of Fame induction, Grigsby was the person to break the news to Vandenburgh that he was among the three Buchanan Award finalists via a FaceTime call initiated by ISU assistant athletics director Mike Williams.

“(Boomer) giving me the news and saying what an honor it is was one of the coolest experiences of my life,” Vandenburgh said.

Putting criticism into action

Vandenburgh’s summer meeting with Spack was an honest, open moment.

“I knew he was going to be honest,” Vandenburgh said. “He doesn’t sugar coat anything. I respect his opinion a bunch, especially about the linebacker position because he played it and he’s coached it.

“He told me, ‘Right now, you’re just not fast enough to play in the NFL, and there’s times you don’t give good effort. You don’t sprint to the ball.’ That was eye-opening.”

As he’s gone through the process of hearing feedback from NFL teams, Vandenburgh said Spack’s criticism was a valuable experience.

“Hearing that stuff before my final season was really beneficial as a player,” he said. “I’m thankful for Coach Spack.”

The improvements Vandenburgh showed, according to Spack, were in taking on bigger offensive linemen more effectively, chasing down more plays across the field and better practice habits.

“It’s pretty remarkable,” Stewart said. “He really worked to get where he is.”

And if Vandenburgh were to win the Buchanan Award?

“That would be awesome,” Stewart said. “It would be great for our university, and it would be great for him. It would also be great for all the people who have been around him the past six years. They could share a part of his success.”

What’s next?

After the Buchanan ceremony, Vandenburgh will play in the Jan. 28 NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

He is also in the middle of a pre-draft regimen at Training HAUS in Eagan, Minn., to prepare for a potential pro future.

Stewart, who played four professional seasons in the Canadian Football League, said a good showing there could result in more opportunities for his star linebacker.

“Maybe he’ll get another phone call,” Stewart said. “He’ll have an opportunity, and that’s all you can ask for.”

Which pro teams are interested will depend on if they see Vandenburgh as an inside linebacker or an outside linebacker.

“He’s got length and size, but what system does he fit?” Stewart asked. “That’s the question they have to answer.”

With a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and an upcoming master’s degree in sport management, Vandenburgh has plenty of post-football career options.

“A dream job would be working for a professional organization in the front office with player personnel, evaluating talent or player development,” he said.

“I could see myself getting into ministry as well. My dad is a pastor and that’s definitely a passion of mine.”

But for the next several months, football is front and center.

“I don’t have a Plan B as of now,” he said. “I’m putting all I’ve got into trying to keep playing football.”

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