TERRE HAUTE —
College football media days are rarely a place for pessimism, and Indiana State’s was no different on Monday at Memorial Stadium.
“I’m excited about the 2013 season,” first-year coach Mike Sanford told a small gathering. “I’ve seen real good things going on … we’ve had a really good summer, we’re in excellent shape and there’s really good leadership on this team, guys that are hungry to win.”
The coach was eventually joined at the podium by All-America running back Shakir Bell, one of eight Sycamore players in attendance. Also facing questions were quarterbacks Mike Perish and Robert Tonyan Jr., center FN Lutz, defensive linemen Tyler Boyd and Russell Jones, linebacker/defensive end Connor Underwood and cornerback Calvin Burnett.
Bell and Burnett were preseason all-Missouri Valley Football Conference first-team selections and Lutz, a first-teamer in 2011 before suffering an injury that caused him to miss last season, was an honorable-mention preseason pick. Sanford also mentioned kickers Tanner Fritschle and Eric Heidorn and new punter Jordan Stangler.
It was a player who wasn’t there who was the focus of a lot of thoughts, however. Senior safety Larry King suffered a knee injury during the first practice on Thursday and his future is questionable.
“He planted wrong and tore his [anterior cruciate ligament],” Sanford said. “He will continue to be a leader for us, but it will be awhile before he plays again.”
King’s injury “hurt me deep,” Bell said moments later. “He’s a fifth-year guy, one of my closest friends … I call him Uncle Larry. I texted him and I told him ‘God gives the toughest battles to the strongest warrior.’
“He’ll lead by any means necessary,” Bell added. “He’ll find some kind of way to impose his will on the defense.”
Burnett’s all-conference prediction “makes me go even harder,” he said Monday, “but I’m in it for my teammates, not for myself. I play hard for them. If [all-MVFC] comes along, it comes along.”
King’s absence means Burnett will be the most experienced member of the ISU secondary.
“I’ll try to be more vocal, more encouraging,” Burnett said, “but it’s not on me; we count on each other, and as long as we play together we’ll be all right.”
Candidates to replace King are numerous and talented, Burnett added.
“They’re all hungry, they all want to start,” he said. “Everybody wants to show they’re accountable … and I’ll keep them encouraged every day.”
Honesty and accountability have been stressed by the new coaching staff, Sanford said, which is another reason he’s encouraged about the upcoming season.
“I like the guys in this room,” he said, looking at the eight players, “and I like a lot of the other guys. We’ve made some great progress [since individual meetings with each player after spring practice] with the things they were told to do and how they changed.”
Asked for examples of those changes, Sanford listed two names but indicated there were other players who also had improved. Tight end Jamar Brown and linebacker Kendall Walker, the coach said, both got measurably bigger and stronger during the summer.
“Of course we’re still running around in our underwear,” Sanford added. “We haven’t been in full pads yet [today is the first day for that, with Wednesday the first two-a-day practice scheduled].”
n Sixth place? Both Sanford and Bell addressed the MVFC’s preseason prediction that had the Sycamores at the top of the second division.
“What we see as coaches, after being in the room with our guys, and what outsiders might see are two different things,” said Sanford, who pointed out that team goals are a conference and national championship. “It’s our job to prove [we’re better than that].”
“We only focus on what we can control,” Bell added. “We just have to go out and play ball.”
n Target — Bell has been one of the most dangerous running backs in the country the past two seasons.
“There will definitely be a target on me,” he said, “but everything to me comes from my [offensive] line. Our wide receivers block for me as well.”
n Favorite blocker — It’s already been pointed out that ISU’s offensive statistics were markedly better in 2011, with Lutz snapping the ball, then they were last year.
“FN is the general of the offensive line,” Bell said. “We’re looking for him to come back and have an amazing season. He always does.”
n How much? His listed roster weight is still 185 pounds, so a questioner wondered if Bell — who has gotten considerably stronger during his time at ISU — was really bigger than that.
Bell admitted to 190, but no more. Then there was a prompt from his coach.
“Ask him how much he squats,” Sanford said. “600,” was Bell’s response.
“Is that pounds?” someone asked incredulously from the back of the room.