TERRE HAUTE —
Possessing confidence comes with its pros and cons, but one of the undeniable benefits of belief in oneself is that you expect to handle anything thrown your way.
When you expect — whether it be expecting to play or expecting to start — you’re ready for it.
It doesn’t happen for everyone, but it’s been the case so far for Indiana State freshmen defenders Jameer Thurman and Phil Wilson. Thrust into starting roles at linebacker and safety respectively, they expected to play all along.
And now that they are playing? They’re performing like seasoned veterans.
Thurman, a freshman from Chicago who starred at Proviso West, has been a revelation at ISU’s sam linebacker spot. Thurman leads ISU in tackles with 14 — seven in each game against Indiana and Purdue, his total was a ISU team-high against the Hoosiers.
Wilson, a redshirt freshman and another Chicagoland product from Bolingbrook, Ill., has also been solid at his safety spot. Wilson has seven tackles and has one of ISU’s two forced fumbles.
“They expected to start. They prepared themselves that way. They weren’t surprised when it happened,” said ISU coach Mike Sanford.
Their path to starting responsibility was circuitous, but the twists and turns in the road along the way didn’t faze either player. Sanford credited their intelligence — in a football sense and academically — for preparing them for the challenge of playing.
For the players? It was their big chance and they weren’t going to squander it.
“It was big for me. With Larry and Donovan going down, especially Larry, it prepared me for the idea that I had to step up and play a lot,” Wilson said.
Prior to preseason camp, Wilson and Thurman were both floating among a group of players who might see playing time in ISU’s secondary.
Even if they emerged, it seemed their playing time would be limited. Starting safeties Larry King and Donovan Layne were back and fellow safety Mark Sewall played regularly in 2012 as well. ISU’s secondary was its most experienced unit.
Then King suffered a season-ending knee injury on the first day of preseason practice. Layne sprained his left ankle during the first quarter of ISU’s game at Indiana on Aug. 29.
It was go time, particularly for Wilson, who moved up the secondary depth chart as preseason practice played out. Wilson credits help from veteran teammates as well as his own preparedness for helping him to swim instead of sink.
“It’s not been too hard. With Calvin [Burnett], Mark [Sewall] and [Alex] Stowers out there, it’s made me more comfortable,” Wilson said. “I’ve been in the playbook a lot. I’ve watched a lot of film. I always want to be mentally prepared.”
Wilson believes that being one step ahead of the competition is the key to his game.
“My biggest strength is that I’ve always played smart. I try to make sure I know the other team as much as possible so I’m reacting out there, not thinking too much,” he said.
Meanwhile, Thurman’s path to the starting lineup took a detour just before the season. Throughout most of preseason camp, he practiced with the defensive backs. A safety at Bolingbrook High School, he expected to compete for a role there this season.
Injuries also altered ISU’s plans at linebacker. When junior college transfer T.J. Tuuu injured his finger, the coaching staff saw something in Thurman that prompted a move.
“He was good at safety, but when T.J. Tuuu had the finger situation, we knew we were thin [at linebacker]. We started playing [Thurman] in a nickel position and realized nickel is like a sam linebacker. We also realized he’s good close to the ball. There’s some transfer between the two positions,” Sanford said.
Thurman last played linebacker before he was in high school.
“At first [moving to linebacker] was kind of hard. I played linebacker when I was younger, but it’s a major difference as I played safety all through high school. I thought I came here to play safety, but they needed help at linebacker. I took the challenge the coaches gave me and took it from there,” Thurman said.
Thurman’s strength in his first two games has been his ability to hit holes and smother opposing ball-carriers. He’s done well so far despite the fact he’s still learning that he doesn’t have to be as choosy about picking when and where to be aggressive.
“The biggest thing for me is to attack. At safety, you wait first and then come up. Now at linebacker? I have to attack on my first read. I’m still working on that. I’m still a little too passive. When I start attacking, I’ll be good,” Thurman said.
The affable Thurman said he’s had “fun” with his opportunity. He’s impressed his teammates with his confidence and ability to adapt.
“Jameer is a special guy. He’s quick. He gets downhill fast. He’s using all of his strengths to his advantage. If he doesn’t know how to do it, he takes coaching, and that’s a good sign. Jameer has come on big-time,” ISU cornerback Calvin Burnett said.
• Injury updates — Running back Shakir Bell (shoulder) and Layne (ankle) are still game-day decisions as to whether they play in Saturday’s home opener against Quincy.
Bell practiced Wednesday. Layne did not, but is no longer in a walking boot, according to Sanford.
Tight end Jamar Brown, who was injured on the second series at Purdue last Saturday, is out this week.
“Jamar has a knee injury. The extent hasn’t been determined yet, but I think it’s pretty serious. He will not play against Quincy,” Sanford said.
New contributors to ISU defense
Indiana State’s top 10 tacklers so far. Players who didn’t get regular playing time in 2012 are bolded.
Jameer Thurman 14
Calvin Burnett 13
Mark Sewall 11
Kendall Walker 10
Russell Jones 10
Conrrad Nicholls 9
Phil Wilson 7
Connor Underwood 7
Tsali Lough 6
Brady Collins 6