TERRE HAUTE —
Back in January, when Indiana State football coach Mike Sanford asked the Sycamores to vote on who would participate on the team’s leadership committee for his inaugural season, defensive tackle Russell Jones wasn’t on his radar.
There’s a good reason for that. The junior college transfer from Foothill Junior College wasn’t voted on to the council by his teammates.
But Jones remained undaunted. He impressed both Sanford — and just as importantly, his teammates — and won hearts and minds through spring practice.
“The team didn’t vote Russell in, but once we went through the offseason program and spring practice, all of the sudden, he became the leader and the team saw him as a leader. He was voted on when we did the ballot again,” Sanford said.
That kind of grit Jones brought to the table is always welcome on the defensive line, and it will have to carry over to the games as ISU’s defensive line is mixed when it comes to experience.
All of the starters have played; two are returning starters, but some played as reserves and will have to accept a larger role.
Gone is All-MVFC defensive end Ben Obaseki and man mountain defensive tackle Jordan Bright. Starting defensive tackle Tyler Boyd returns, along with stellar defensive end Connor Underwood, who had six sacks in his freshman season, but players like Jones will have to provide the glue.
Jones, a senior, spelled both Boyd and Bright in 2012 and played well when given the chance. Jones had 23 tackles in 2012 — tied for 13th on the team — including two for a loss.
Jones likes the leadership potential the defensive line can bring, even when it’s taken into account that none of the starters has been in that role for more than one season. Though only half of the line are returning starters, it’s the only unit with two starting seniors within it on the defensive side.
“We have a new defensive line coach [Mike Lucas] who’s done a phenomenal job of preparing us for some new roles,” Jones said. “We’re the older unit this year. We’re putting it on ourselves to make plays. We need to create tempo and keep it rolling.”
As for leadership, Jones’ style is to be vocal, but he knows that actions speak louder than words.
“I’m a loud guy. I’m a hype guy, but to be a leader, you have to show it through work. When it comes to the leadership council, you have to be talkative, you have to focus in on what the team wants,” Jones said.
Sanford likes that Jones won’t hesitate to show his emotions and he feels it informs the way Jones plays.
“I love that about him. He plays with passion and he’s a playmaker on defense,” Sanford said.
On paper, ISU’s defense was a 4-3 unit under former coach Trent Miles, but in reality, it operated with 3-4 principles. But new coach Sanford’s defense will have four-man fronts, but the primary mission is to have flexibility and show different looks.
“The biggest difference is the multiple defenses we’re running. We’re not doing one thing and it’s exciting,” Jones said.
Underwood was one of the most exciting players on ISU’s 2012 defense. His six sacks were good for fifth in the Missouri Valley Football Conference and his 9 1/2 tackles for loss ranked 12th. Underwood was the third in the MVC Newcomer of the Year balloting last year.
Boyd started in 2012, quietly amassed 41 tackles, and is the one player on the line who has game experience dating back to the 2011 season.
Boyd, 6-foot-2, and Jones, 6-1, won’t bring the size to the interior that the 6-7 Bright did a year ago, but both will be quicker.
Sophomore end Conrad Nicholls had six tackles and has the least amount of playing experience among the starters. Nicholls tweaked his knee during practice, but Sanford said he should be healthy for the season.
Keeping the defensive line healthy will be paramount. Defensive ends Zakee Bashir and Tyler Stafford are the only reserves with significant previous playing experience. Brady Collins played two games in 2012.
Collins and Antonio Broadus have earned reps in practice at defensive end. Conlan Cassidy and Tyshon Walker have emerged in the middle of the line as potential reserves.
ISU defensive line
Projected starters: DE Conner Underwood*, So.; DE Conrad Nicholls, So.; DT Tyler Boyd*, Sr., DT Russell Jones, Sr.
In relief: Zakee Bashir, Sr.; Tyler Stafford, Sr.; Brady Collins, So.; Conlan Cassidy, RFr.; Alec Lyons, RFr.; Ahmad Smith, RFr.; Tyshon Walker, RFr.; Antonio Broadus, Fr.; Patrick McCown, Fr.
Defensive coordinator: Brian Cabral.
Position coach: Mike Lucas.
* denotes returning starter