TERRE HAUTE —
Taking into account the first and second teams, Indiana State lost seven All-Missouri Valley Football Conference selections from its 2012 roster.
While stars like Ben Obaseki, Aaron Archie, Jacolby Washington and Johnny Towalid got the headlines via their more visible contributions, it would be hard to argue that of those seven, another player at an unheralded position might have the toughest shoes to fill of all.
Former punter Lucas Hileman cast a long shadow over opposing offenses and was a major factor in ISU having the third-best scoring defense in the nation last season.
Hileman controlled field position with his 44.1 per punt average. He was the best punter in the MVFC two years running and was ranked seventh in the nation in 2012.
ISU coach Mike Sanford knew it would be tough to replace Hileman, but the task became even tougher when Australian recruit Rhys Felton — recruited in January’s class — was not able to become eligible.
It left Sanford in a bind. So he turned to Jordon Stangler. The Surprise, Ariz. native played at Eastern Arizona Junior College in 2012. Indiana State was not on his radar until the Sycamores’ staff gave him a call.
“I got hurt out of high school and ended up at a junior college. Out of nowhere the offer came from ISU. I understood the chance was there to play right away. Not that I’m afraid of competition, but this is all that I had. I took it and I’ll run with it,” Stangler said.
Stangler averaged 36.1 yards per punt at Eastern Arizona and was second-team all-conference. Stangler acknowledged that he has “big shoes to fill” and said he’s revamped nearly everything about his punting since he arrived with the Sycamores. There’s one adjustment he feels he won’t have to make.
“Coming from a junior college, I feel like I have the experience and that I can play this speed,” Stangler said.
Stangler is the only new specialist in ISU’s special teams. Kicker Tanner Fritschle returns for his junior season after a breakout sophomore campaign. Fritschle converted 15 of 18 field goal attempts and all but one of his 30 extra point attempts. Just as important, Fritschle consistently got the ball deep on kickoffs.
“Tanner has a ton of ability as a kicker. He’s a good kickoff guy. He’s had moments of greatness and moments of frustration in training camp, but I’m happy to have him,” Sanford said.
Familiar faces are back at the return spots. Calvin Burnett and Tanner Riley will once again handle punt returns. They combined to return 15 of ISU’s 17 punts in 2012. ISU ranked fourth in the conference and 41st nationally in punt returns.
“Punt return, to me, is the most important. That’s one of those things, like a long snapper, that keeps coaches awake at night. If you can’t catch a punt, you’re in big trouble,” Sanford said. “I feel great about that because we have Calvin Burnett and Tanner Riley. I trust them. They’ll make good decisions and they’ll catch it.”
Taje High (16 returns, 384 yards) and Riley (5-190) handled kick returns in 2012 and they’ll be back this season, but Sanford wants to expand his horizons. George Cheeseborough and junior college transfer Clay Guess will both return kicks this season.
And so will another notable Sycamore. Shakir Bell.
“We’re going to use Shakir back there. I may not use him all of the time, but he’s too talented not to,” said Sanford, who was then asked how he balances the risk of injury and over-use. “There’s a fine line and we have to keep a balance. We’ll hold him out and use him on offensive exclusively and there will be times we use him on kickoffs. We won’t put him on punts.”
Bell has two career kickoff returns, both against Southern Illinois in 2011, for 42 yards.
Sanford said he intends to use several starters in his kick and punt coverage units, especially against Indiana and Purdue in ISU’s first two games, as the talent disparity between the divisions is most widely felt on special teams.
Sanford mentioned several “special teams warriors” who are not starters that will contribute. Tsali Lough, Jameer Thurman, Jordan Jackson, Phil Wilson and Sampson Levingston are among those who will likely be called upon in that role.
ISU SPECIAL TEAMS
Kickers/specialists: K Tanner Fritschle*, Jr.; P Jordon Stangler, Jr.; LS Garrick Dikos, Sr.; LS Josh Appel, Fr.
Returners: PR Calvin Burnett, Sr.; PR-KR Tanner Riley, Sr.; KR George Cheeseborough, Sr.; KR Shakir Bell, Sr.; KR Clay Guess, Jr.
Special teams coordinator: Jami DeBerry.
* denotes returning starter