12052015_ISU v WIU_ 4

Hancock Stadium was filled with just 6,124 fans for an FCS Playoffs matchup against in-state rival Western Illinois. Illinois State defeated in-state rival WIU 36-19 in the FCS Playoffs second round.

Look closer.

At first glance, it seems like the Illinois State University football program is going to see a down year in 2016. And it is easy to see where people would come up with this notion.

The Redbirds will be hit with devastating losses on offense with the graduation of running back Marshaun Coprich and quarterback Tre Roberson. The pair was the best one-two offensive punch in the Missouri Valley Football Conference for the past two seasons. Gone are their 120 touchdowns over the last two years – an astounding 91 percent of the offensive scores (68 combined TD in 2014, 52 combined TD in 2015). The team also loses the leadership of those two, who provided a strong locker room presence.

On defense, the two best edge pass rushers are gone in Teddy Corwin and David Perkins. Those two are off to possibly pursue professional careers, with Corwin most likely to be worked out at tight end – he was originally recruited to play the position and has proven he can snag passes on defense – and Perkins is seen as a possible outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.

The linebacker corps loses its two most productive leaders in defensive captain Pat Meehan and Alex Donnelly, while the secondary will see their best cornerback Josh Burch graduate as well.

Throw in the losses of special teams standout Nate Bond, backup safety Soniel Estime – who was solid in place of the injured Alec Kocour – and OL Joe Farmer, who figured to be a key reserve on the line before a season-ending torn ACL in fall training camp. Count ‘em up and that’s 10 key seniors lost.

But look closer, and you will see plenty of reasons for optimism. For one, they will return all five starting linemen. Mark Spelman and Kyle Avaloy will return hungry as senior leaders on a unit also featuring Dan Pawlak, Cameron Lee and Ryan Gelber. Those five improved dramatically from a dreadful game against Iowa to become a cohesive group that paved the way for an elite rushing attack. They have an entire offseason to learn, work and grow together to come back for another go-round.

On defense, the squad returns DL Dalton Keene – who absolutely blew up this year, ranking second on the team in tackles-for-loss (10.0) and sacks (5.0) behind Perkins – and Adam Conley, who has potential to be a force as a pass rusher. Walk-on DL Matt McCown is also another guy to keep an eye on. Coming into this season, I told people to watch out for McCown. I thought he was going to enjoy a breakout year, and that he did – third on the team with 8.5 TFLs, including 2.5 sacks (it’s nice to be right about something).

But easily the most pleasant surprise on defense was first-year starting linebacker Alejandro Rivera. At the beginning of the year, I told people Rivera was going to lose his starting spot after a couple of games and be replaced by Iowa transfer Reggie Spearman. Could not have been more wrong. Rivera completely outplayed Spearman – who, by the way, ended up getting dismissed from the team – and finished the season ranked second on the team with 83 total tackles (win some, lose some as far as predictions go).

Do not forget about the return of safety Alec Kocour, a hard-hitting defender who led the team with three interceptions while pouring in 78 tackles. The main thing to worry about with Kocour is his health. He had offseason shoulder surgery coming into 2015, sustained a concussion and was lost for the playoffs due to a broken clavicle. If he stays on the field, he is the aggressor the defense needs, but his playing style always provides reason for caution.

Kocour’s fellow defensive backs in the secondary (DraShane Glass, Davontae Harris, La’Darius Newbold) need to see marked improvement in 2016. Far too often the last line of defense got burned and it came back to bite them in their loss to Richmond. True freshman Luther Kirk is one the coaches have gushed over throughout the year. He possesses prototypical height for a cornerback at 6-foot-2, but needs to add some mass to his 170-lb. frame. Kirk is the strongest candidate to take over Burch’s vacancy.

As you can see, there are plenty of moving parts and A LOT of time between now and the start of next season. But put all of the above analysis aside for the moment. The main reason these ‘Birds can see plenty of success next year is due to one guy who is going to have a monkey the size of King Kong on his back: Jake Kolbe.

The redshirt freshman quarterback possesses a polar opposite style than Roberson. Although Kolbe can run a bit, he is nowhere near the rushing threat of his predecessor. Instead, Kolbe will utilize a much stronger and more accurate arm to carve up defenses. It’s entirely possible the ISU coaching staff will switch up their offensive schemes for the 2016 run. While the running game will always be this program’s identity, the Redbird coaches know they have something special with Kolbe. They would be fools to let it go to waste and not adjust the offense to his strengths. Obviously, the ground game should not be abandoned, but it should see a shift in percentage in favor of increased passing calls.

And for my money, I believe Kolbe is going to end up being the second-best quarterback in the history of ISU football next to Redbird legend Matt Brown – that’s something I’ve been saying since the spring. Watching Kolbe in practice, and also during his limited time at Iowa, it’s clear to see the redshirt freshman has a calm, cool and comfortable pocket presence. He sits in there, goes through his progressions and never seems too hurried before slinging the ball.

Of course, there is a steep learning curve he must go through. Against Northern Iowa when he started in place of an injured Roberson, he looked completely lost in the second half under pressure and he never really got his feet under him. He will learn from that experience, and he will have receivers Christian Gibbs, Jon-Marc Anderson and Anthony Fowler at his disposal. Plus, he will be able to dump throws off to tight ends Michael Clements or Tylor Petkovich.

Oh, and there’s some guy named Anthony Warrum returning for his senior campaign.

“Jake Kolbe finds Anthony Warrum for the touchdown!” is a phrase Redbird fans are going to hear so many times in 2016 that it might hinder on the borderline of annoyance. It’s entirely possible that Warrum could match the output he had this year when he set the school’s single-season record of 15 touchdown receptions. The two are going to build up an uncanny level of chemistry on their way to setting a few records.

Also, throw in a guy I think very highly of who can be used perfectly as a slot receiver in Bryce Jefferson. The true freshman is a speedster, and he caught just about everything thrown his way this season. He wasn’t utilized heavy enough in the passing game, but he will be used correctly next year as an undersized guy with Stick ‘Em attached to his gloves. The passing attack with these returning players is going to open up plenty of room for the rushing attack.

Speaking of the running game, all is not lost with the graduation of Coprich. We hardly got to see him on game days out of the backfield – something that was preposterous considering his talent level – but George Moreira has all the makings of being an every down stud. He is slightly bigger than Coprich, although not as fast. But he did showcase some burners on a few kickoffs this year as the Redbirds’ main return man. The redshirt freshman now has three years to develop size, strength, speed and playmaking ability.

The Kolbe/Moreira combination may not look like much right now, but it’s going to terrorize defenses down the road. Hop on that bandwagon now while there are still seats at the front.

Despite all of these returns, I do not think the Redbirds will be as complete of a team next year. They will be around an 8-3 team in 2016, with another 9-2 finish as its ceiling. ISU is going to remain in the top 15 throughout the year, although they most likely will not stick around in the top 10. Of course, there are still many factors to play out, mainly who and where the ‘Birds will play, so it’s nothing short of speculation to predict a record. Still, if they play to their strengths they should see another outstanding season, even if it doesn’t necessarily mean a national championship finish.

Throw in another top recruiting class and it’s clear to see this ISU program is on the rise under head coach Brock Spack. After what he has done to build this program, Spack is going to receive a bunch of offers from all over the country. If he leaves, which I don’t think he will, there would be a ton of scrambling to find a coach serviceable enough to replace him. But if he stays, the ‘Birds are in great hands.

It is easy to be short-sighted and point out what the Redbirds will lose and say they are not going to be as good next year. But after averting your eyes from the key losses, it’s clear to see that the glass is more than half full.

You just have to look closer.

Zack Carpenter is a senior journalism major and sports editor at The Vidette. He can be reached by email at vidette_zecarpe@ilstu.edu and found on Twitter @ZCarp11.​

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