TERRE HAUTE —
The foundation stones are there for Indiana State’s football team. They’re spread out neatly and evenly over the offensive and defensive units.
There’s Shakir Bell, a rock at running back, a vocal motivator for his teammates, and perhaps, one of the best football players in program history.
There’s center FN Lutz, who returns from a knee injury that cost him his 2012 season, but who was never really away anyway given his leadership skills.
There’s cornerback Calvin Burnett, who has quietly been one of the better cornerbacks in the Missouri Valley Football Conference since 2010.
There’s defensive tackle Tyler Boyd, who has steadily gone about his business in the defensive line with even quieter aplomb than Burnett.
The Sycamores’ foundation stones are solid … the question that hangs over the 2013 season is whether the materials used to build around that foundation will be sound enough to keep ISU football on the successful course its blazed since the 2010 season.
There are other veterans — safety Donovan Layne, hybrid linebacker-defensive end Connor Underwood, defensive tackle Russell Jones, wide receiver Tanner Riley, quarterback Mike Perish — who provide hope that ISU can enjoy its fourth consecutive winning season and finally break through to earn a FCS playoff bid, the prize that has eluded the Sycamores since 1984.
On the other hand, there are new starters within every unit, save running backs. The linebackers are completely new and the punter, Jordon Stangler, replaces two-time All-MVFC punter Lucas Hileman.
Some of the units that return players aren’t dogged by inexperience so much as the need to improve. To wit, the quarterback-wide receiver combination needs to improve its 102nd place national passing rank. There is not a declared starting quarterback as incumbent Mike Perish and Robert Tonyan Jr. will share duties for now.
So for all of the foundation stones, there are question marks to match them.
“We have experienced guys who are the rocks and we have young guys who need to grow up fast. How fast we grow up and how fast we mature as a football is going to have a lot to do with how we play,” ISU coach Mike Sanford said.
The Sanford era at ISU begins unlike any coaching era since Dennis Raetz took command in 1980. Instead of being a building or reclamation project, Sanford has something to sustain at ISU. The program hasn’t enjoyed four consecutive winning seasons it put together six in a row from 1964-69.
Former coach Trent Miles, who took over a FBS school Georgia State in December 2012, used a core of players recruited in his first and second classes to build the team that went 19-14 in the last three seasons. The remaining foundation stones are the remnants of that group and the challenge for Sanford is keep ISU from taking a step backward before he puts the stamp on the program himself.
Sanford is confident the Sycamores will be ready and will be successful in 2013. But like any coach, he feels there’s always one more thing to do when it comes to improving the team.
“Any coach has a combination of two extreme emotions. One is excitement and the other side is uncertainty. Fear of the unknown. To say that I feel great about football team? I love our guys. I love our attitude, I love our preparation. I feel, though, like we have to continue preparing,” Sanford said.
Preparation, Sanford said, is most needed in how the Sycamores prepare themselves. A big part of how ISU prepares itself is mastering Sanford’s spread offense and an attacking defensive scheme, both having been changed from Miles’ regime.
In its formations, ISU won’t look altogether different than it did under Miles. Three-receiver sets were common and will be again under Sanford. The tight end will be utilized as it was before. Bell, of course, will be the focal point of the offense.
Defensively, ISU will have a similar look that it did a year ago. It’s a hybrid 3-4/4-3 defense where a player (Underwood) sets up as a down lineman or a standup defender depending on the game situation.
The devil is in the details on both sides of the ball. The offense will be more diverse and will call for a different level of concentration from the players. The defense will be more aggressive, and as a result, will be punished more severely if a player misses his assignment.
“It’s a whole new scheme. It’s a whole new way of playing. Last year, we had a lot of zone. This year, we’re playing more man. It’s fun to go and do new things, but it’s a challenge too,” ISU safety Donovan Layne said of the defense.
ISU’s players have had time to get used to the new schemes as well as a different way of doing things by Sanford himself. Miles was fiery and his passion motivated many of the Sycamores and caused others to go into a shell.
Sanford is quieter, has more of a corporate approach, and allows the players’ actions on the practice field speak for themselves in terms of playing time or lack thereof.
Like Miles, Sanford will have more say on the offensive side of the ball — all but one season in Sanford’s assistant coaching career was spent on offense — than the defensive side. But he said, in general, he likes to leave many of the gameday details to his coaching staff.
“I leave a lot to the coordinators, but I’m involved in a lot of the decision-making, especially on offense. As far as going for it, what we’re doing in kicking situations, red zone, I’m very involved,” Sanford said. “I’ll have a conversation in-between series with our defense. I’ve learned it’s better to have an overall perspective than for me to call every play.”
So what’s a fair expectation for the Sycamores? Their nonconference slate will test them. It’s the first time ISU has played two Big Ten teams in a single season, and while the combined $800,000 ISU gets for the two games will do wonders for the athletic budget, it might not help ISU’s playoff hopes.
The Missouri Valley Football Conference is once again considered to be the best FCS conference in the nation. North Dakota State, the two-time defending national champion, returns everyone. South Dakota State, Northern Iowa, Youngstown State and Illinois State are all expected to be formidable. ISU was picked sixth in the MVFC preseason poll.
On ISU’s side of the ledger, it will not play UNI in the regular season and it plays two MVFC strugglers — South Dakota and Missouri State — in winnable road games. The FCS playoff field expands to 24 this season which will help ISU’s playoff odds.
“I never like to say how many games we’re going to win. Our goal is to win a championship, go to the FCS playoffs and win a national championship. We’ll be a hungry team that plays hard,” Sanford said.
That hunger was best articulated by Bell, who may have given a clue as to how the circle is squared to build a winning house around ISU’s foundation stones.
“The energy around here is crazy. There’s so many young guys who want to prove what they can do. There’s seniors here who are hungry to take this program to the next level and make the next step. We’re all so ready to go out and prove ourselves,” Bell said.
ISU at IU
Time: 7 p.m. Thursday.
TV: Big Ten Network.
Series: IU leads 4-0.
2013 ISU football schedule
Thursday — at Indiana, 7 p.m.
Note: ISU seeks its first win over a Big Ten team in what will be its 11th try.
Sept. 7 — at Purdue, noon.
Note: ISU last played the Boilermakers in 2005.
Sept. 14 — Quincy, 3 p.m.
Note: It’s the fourth time in five seasons the Sycamores have played the Hawks.
Sept. 28 — at Tennessee Tech, 8 p.m.
Note: It’s the first game of a home-and-home series.
Oct. 5 — Youngstown State, 3 p.m.
Note: ISU has only beaten the Penguins once (2011) at home.
Oct. 12 — at South Dakota, 2 p.m.
Note: The Coyotes still seek their first MVFC victory.
Oct. 19 — at Illinois State, 2 p.m.
Note: ISU last won in Normal in 1997.
Oct. 26 — North Dakota State, 3 p.m.
Note: ISU is the only FBS team that beat the Bison last season.
Nov. 2 — at Missouri State, 2 p.m.
Note: ISU has won four in a row over the Bears.
Nov. 9 — at South Dakota State, 3 p.m.
Note: ISU won 38-28 in its last trip to Brookings, S.D. in 2011.
Nov. 16 — Western Illinois, 2 p.m.
Note: WIU is led by first-year coach Bob Nielson.
Nov. 23 — Southern Illinois, 2 p.m.
Note: ISU hasn’t beaten SIU in Terre Haute since 2001.