|Junior makes transition from running to tackling|
|Written by Kevin Massoth, Daily Vidette Sports Editor|
|Wednesday, 20 October 2010 21:45|
Position switches in football happen often, especially at the college level. If a talented player is buried deep on the depth chart, they usually can be taught a new position if given the proper time.
But the Illinois State football team was placed in this predicament with hardly any time at all.
With a flurry of athletic runners in the backfield, hardly enough carries to go around and a defense that desperately needed speed and quickness, ISU head coach Brock Spack and the football staff made an interesting mid-season move last week.
Less than a week before facing off against No. 14 North Dakota State in ISU’s Homecoming game on Saturday, Spack shifted former running back and leading rusher Cliffton Gordon to the defensive side of the ball.
“I have to give [ISU defensive backs coach] Lamar Conard part of the credit,” Spack said. “We were sitting in the stats room and I said, man we’ve got to increase our foot speed. He said, what about Cliffton Gordon, and I said, great idea.”
With transfer running backs Erik Smith and Ashton Leggett and freshman Cameron Hunt joining the ISU football team this year, Gordon found himself as the fourth option at running back receiving little playing time throughout the first six games of the season.
But moving Gordon to outside linebacker could not have come at a more perfect time for the Redbirds, as they lost an embarrassing 59-24 road battle at Indiana State the game before, and it was evident ISU needed more speed on the defensive side of the ball.
Although Gordon had never played a down at the linebacker position throughout his entire football career, including his high school days at Marion Catholic High School, the coaching staff believed his talent and football knowledge would help him make a quick and smooth transfer.
“We moved him and then I coached him up,” Spack said. “He’s a real smart guy. I was really impressed with how intelligent he is. With most kids that would be really difficult to do.”
The transition proved a success as the entire defense took a step forward by defeating NDSU 34-24 in the Redbirds’ Homecoming game, thanks in large part to Gordon’s spectacular debut.
From the outside linebacker position, Gordon recorded four tackles, including two solo stops, with none bigger than the one coming on the Bison opening drive.
The opening kickoff was returned by NDSU’s Justin Howard 58 yards to the ISU 38-yard line, and when facing a fourth and two, the Bison decided to go for it instead of kicking a long field goal into the wind.
“We threw Cliffton right in there right away and we ran a little blitz with him,” Spack said. “He did a good job of stacking things up and he did a great job of cleaning up the ball carrier there to stop him short of the first down, which is awesome.”
Spack added, “That was a huge stop for us to get us a lot of momentum. That was a critical play in the game.”
Even with his momentum swinging stop early in the game, Gordon admitted the move was not as easy as it looked for a player used to getting points, not preventing them.
“It was definitely a change of pace because I was playing offense for the last three years,” Gordon said. “But I pretty much got all of my jitters out on the first drive. As the game went on, it started to slow down and I started to play how they taught me all week.”
According to Spack, Gordon’s impact on the defense showed long before the tailgating began before Saturday’s Homecoming game.
“When he stepped on the practice field, everybody had a little more bounce to their step just because everybody likes Cliff,” Spack said. “He’s really popular with our players, and he just gave us a spark.”
But to Gordon, it was Spack and his teammates that helped make his transition a successful one.
“Coach Spack did a great job all week of getting me up to speed with the playbook and just getting me a lot of reps all week,” Gordon said.
He added, “Josh Howe and Austin Davis did a great job all game of making sure I was in the right position.”
Redbird fans can expect to see Gordon on the defensive side of the ball for the final four games of the Redbirds’ regular season, bringing quickness and confidence to the ISU defense.
“We’re going to leave those changes alone and keep going with that,” Spack said. “Cliff brought a spark to us, which we really were in need of on defense. It was an amazing transition.”