Healthy Illinois State offense revs up as spring practice turns toward summer

Wenkers Wright (32), shown here prior to Saturday’s spring game, returns as one of the staples of Illinois State’s backfield. (Photo by Barry Bottino, Prairie State Pigskin)

By Dan Verdun

NORMAL – Perhaps the biggest news coming out of Illinois State’s recently completed spring practice is the good bill of health.

Following a season in which ISU lost its starting tailback to injury in the season opener, its starting quarterback down the stretch and nagging ailments that sidelined other key contributors, the Redbird offense appears ready to roll into summer.

“It’s nice to have healthy players going into the actual season because this is when we get the joints all oiled up and ready to go,” said tailback Wenkers Wright, who was credited with rushing for 39 yards on eight carries in Saturday’s ISU spring game.

He helped lead the Red team over the White, 30-7, at Hancock Stadium.

Wright, a redshirt sophomore from Indiana, was hampered by a series of injuries – sprained ankle, pulled hamstring, dislocated shoulder – last fall.

“(The ankle) was the one that lingered the longest,” he said. “It was a bunch of stuff stacking up. I’d rather have my upper body hurting than my lower body so I can actually run.”

Wright topped Redbird runners with 625 yards in 2022, a total that was the lowest for an ISU team-leading rusher since 2016.

Wright took over the majority of carries when Cole Mueller sustained a season-ending injury at Wisconsin in last year’s season opener.

Mueller ran for a team-best 977 yards as a redshirt freshman in 2021. That season he ranked third in the Missouri Valley Football Conference in rushing yards and was fourth in rushing yards per game (88.8).

While the 6-foot, 210-pound Mueller participated in spring practices and has been cleared medically, the ISU coaching staff kept him on the sidelines as a precaution for Saturday’s scrimmage game.

Meanwhile, Northern Illinois transfer Mason Blakemore impressed both the staff and his new teammates.

“I have some teammates from high school at Northern, so they told me about Blakemore. I got in touch with him before he even came here,” Wright said. “He’s a great addition. It’s going to be insane with me, him and Cole (Mueller) in the backfield. As one of us tires, we’ll put in another one of us and keep things going.”

Veteran defensive coordinator Travis Niekamp saw the Redbird offense’s potential firsthand during the during the 15 days of spring practice.

“I think the biggest thing is that we have a legitimate three-headed monster-plus at tailback right now,” Niekamp said. “(Offensive coordinator) Tony (Petersen) calls them ‘erasers’.

“Regardless of what happens, they’re good enough to make someone miss a tackle, run through a guy or they’re just good enough to take the ball to the house. That’s probably the dynamic piece of it. Anybody can tell you that if you can run the football, it opens up a lot of things.”

Zack is back

Redshirt senior quarterback Zack Annexstad is recovered from a separated throwing shoulder that caused him to miss the final three games last fall.

Annexstad played the first half of Saturday’s spring game, completing 17-of-24 passes for 157 yards and a touchdown.

Prior to his injury, Annexstad played in eight games. He completed 62.8 percent of his passes, the highest percentage for an ISU starter since 2012. Annexstad threw for 1,691 yards with 11 touchdowns. He was intercepted seven times.

Zack Annexstad (Photo by Barry Bottino, Prairie State Pigskin)

Annexstad, who transferred to Illinois State from the University of Minnesota in 2022, is excited for his second season under Petersen.

“That’s a big thing. A lot of offenses take that jump in year two,” Annexstad said. “We’re mixing things up a little bit on the offensive side.”

Wright said, “We’ve had a couple scrimmages the past couple of weeks, and in those we realized that the running game is amazing. We spent a little more time passing (today) to try to open it up, but I’d say spring ball went pretty good overall.”

Like Annexstad, redshirt sophomore quarterback Tommy Rittenhouse also threw for 157 yards Saturday.

Rittenhouse, a Geneva native who prepped at St. Francis, started the Redbirds’ last three games last season following Annexstad’s injury.

Illinois State also brought in Georgia native Mason Kaplan, a transfer from Valparaiso, who passed for 191 yards and two touchdowns against the Redbirds in last September’s ISU home opener.

On the receiving end

Illinois State returns its top two receivers – Jalen Carr and Daniel Sobkowicz – from last fall.

“There’s huge improvements in the offense, especially up front and in the receiver room too. Zack has improved a lot,” said Sobkowicz, who had 31 catches for a team-high 377 yards and three touchdowns in ’22.

“I feel like the offense has taken steps way over where we were last year,” Sobkowicz said. “This summer, we just need to get little things sorted out. I think we can be really good.”

Annexstad agrees.

“We’re deeper in that (receiver) room this year. Dan is a really good player. (Add in) Camo Nelson. I’Shawn Stewart. Eddie Kasper. I could keep going with a list. We’ve got some pretty good tight ends that people will like watching this year,” the quarterback said.

News & notes: Head coach Brock Spack begins his 15th season in Normal. Spack, who was hired prior to the 2009 season, is Illinois State’s all-time wins leader . . . ISU has moved running back Nigel White to cornerback. White was the Redbirds’ second-leading rusher a season ago . . . The Redbirds were 6-5 overall and 4-4 in the MVFC in ’22 . . . ISU opens the 2023 season Sept. 2 with a non-conference home game against Dayton of the Pioneer Football League. A week later, the Redbirds start their Missouri Valley schedule at rival Western Illinois.

Coming up later this week: Barry Bottino takes a look at the Redbird defense.

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