New-look Illinois State defense features plenty of youth

Illinois State linebacker Jalan Gaines (50) pursues quarterback Tommy Rittenhouse during the Redbirds’ spring football game at Hancock Stadium in Normal. (Photo by Barry Bottino,

By Barry Bottino

NORMAL — Dozens of local kids ran, jumped, laughed, danced and celebrated on the turf Saturday at Illinois State’s Hancock Stadium during a youth clinic.

When the team that those kids came to see took the field for the annual spring football game, the Redbirds showed off their own version of a youth movement.

Illinois State is replacing nine starters on defense this off-season, most notably linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh, who won the Buck Buchanan Award as the top FCS defensive player in the country.

“What keeps me up and night is when we look at who we played with in our last football game and where we’re at now,” ISU defensive coordinator Travis Niekamp told Prairie State Pigskin. “We basically have to replace our whole front seven. In this conference, you have to have a good front seven to win football games.
“We have pieces to that puzzle, we just have to be more consistent on an every-down basis. It’s going to take some time to get that done,” he said.

Illinois State junior safety Dillon Gearhart is one of two returning starters for the Redbird defense. (Photo by Barry Bottino,

Only two starters – sophomore linebacker Lavoise-Deontae McCoy and junior safety Dillon Gearhart – remain on the roster since the Redbirds beat Western Illinois, 20-13 in overtime, in their season finale Nov. 19.

Gone are players that combined for 257 games played and 165 starts, including linebackers Kenton Wilhoit and Jeremiah Jordan, and cornerback Franky West, who have all departed via the transfer portal. Five of ISU’s top six tacklers from a year ago have now moved on.

“The tough part of it is just trying to figure out the pieces of the puzzle,” Niekamp said. “Who are our best 11? What does our best 11 do in the scheme of our defense, and how can we exploit that? That’s probably not going to be answered until the fall. 

“Obviously, with the transfer portal, there are still some things that are up in the air.”

Though the Redbirds could add pieces themselves through transfers, Niekamp and others are excited about the growth of numerous young players.

“What we see every day in practice is encouraging,” said junior linebacker Cade Campos, who played in nine games as a reserve last season. “We’re very young. Every single day, the guys come to play. They’re eager to learn and eager to play. It’s great to see guys who love football.”

Rushing the passer

With Vandenburgh gone, the Redbirds lose his FCS-leading 14 sacks and 21 tackles for loss from the Jack linebacker spot, a hybrid position with pass-rush responsibilities.

His backup against WIU in November, Jalan Gaines, spent last season studying the Redbirds’ star linebacker and taking notes.

“I learned a lot from Zeke, especially his work ethic,” the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Gaines said. “I got to witness the great things that he did.”

Gaines said the transition from starting his career as a defensive lineman at NCAA Division III Dubuque University in Iowa to rush linebacker was difficult at first.

“After going through fall camp (in 2022) and having my coaches help me out, it was pretty easy once I got the reps and the practice that I needed,” he said.

Niekamp said Gaines and fellow linebacker Amir Abdullah, a Chicago native who transferred to ISU after two seasons at Division II Nebraska-Kearney, are currently the team’s most consistent edge rushers.

“Jalan has taken a big step for us,” Neikamp said. “He can rush the passer. It will be hard to replace Zeke, so we’re probably going to have to replace him with a couple of people.”

The most experienced defensive lineman in the group, redshirt senior Josh Dinga (30 career games played), did not participate in the spring game.

In the middle

Cade Campos

Wilhoit’s entry into the portal came during spring camp, further draining the experience at that position.

However, it has opened the door for players such as Campos, who had eight tackles during the spring game, to contribute.

“I’ve got more game experience against some really good opponents,” Campos said of his gains over the past year. “I can play both positions – Mike (middle) and Will (weakside). I don’t have a preference at all, just wherever the team needs me.”

One of the most productive defenders during the spring was redshirt freshman linebacker Tye Niekamp, a Normal Community High School grad who is the defensive coordinator’s son.

During the spring game, he collected seven tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and a fumble recovery.

Youthful secondary

Along with Gearhart, the team’s fourth-leading tackler a year ago, ISU returns blossoming junior safety Keondre Jackson, who played in 10 games last season and made 46 tackles.

Nigel White

At cornerback, West and recent Canadian Football League signee Deandre Lamont combined for 19 starts in 2022.

That left new cornerbacks coach Tevin Madison with sophomore Jeff Bowens (five starts) as the most experienced player in his group this spring.

“We’re young, but I think we’re really talented,” Madison said. “I was a young player and played early (at Texas Tech in 2014). I believe it can happen and you can be successful when you’re young.”

Madison’s group includes converted running back Nigel White, along with junior Cam Wilson and sophomores Christian Kirenga and Mark Cannon Jr.

Despite their inexperience, the cornerbacks proved coachable this spring, according to Madison.

“Every coaching point that I give them, they take it,” he said. “They’re really eager and hungry to learn, and that inspires me. Just having a group that’s so impressionable, it motivates me.”

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