NORMAL — Illinois State junior Colton Underwood may be found among 20 candidates for the Buck Buchanan Award given to the top defensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Yet locating Underwood on the field is considerably more challenging.
The powerful versatility of Underwood along with the talent and depth of his teammates on the Redbird defensive line have played a major role in ISU’s advancement to the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs against Eastern Washington on Saturday at 5 p.m. (CST) in Cheney, Wash.
“They are very tough and our system fits real well with the personality of those guys,” Redbird coach Brock Spack said. “Going into the season, we felt it was going to be that way, and it’s come to fruition.”
ISU boasts a pair of first-team Missouri Valley Football Conference linemen in Underwood and tackle Shelby Harris, and a second-team choice in end Nate Palmer.
A 255-pounder, Underwood has exploded onto the national scene with 95 tackles, 19½ tackles for loss and 10½ sacks.
Underwood lines up at end on first down. But depending on the down, distance and game situation, the Washington native could shift inside to tackle or even stare down the center as a nose guard.
“I actually like that position a lot,” Underwood said of nose. “Once I put lower body strength on, I feel a lot more comfortable there.”
Albert Sparks, a 320-pound junior tackle, typically joins Underwood, Harris and Palmer as starters. In passing situations Sparks departs, outside linebacker Evan Frierson moves up to end and Underwood shifts inside.
“Our personnel allows us to be very creative. It allows us to be more multiple,” said Redbird defensive line coach Spence Nowinsky. “To our players, our scheme is pretty simple. For people preparing for us, it’s pretty difficult.”
Harris has recorded 79 tackles and five sacks, Frierson 68 tackles and 6½ sacks and Palmer 64 tackles and 6½ sacks. That trio has combined for 38 stops for lost yardage.
“We take it upon ourselves to compete every snap. We’re competitive within the unit,” Palmer said. “We say ‘who’s going to make the tackle or who’s going to get the sack.’ ”
The tenacity and quickness of Harris on the interior has elevated the line to another level.
“Shelby came here (as a transfer from Wisconsin) as a defensive end. He put on some weight, got stronger and we moved him inside,” Nowinsky said. “Shelby as a defensive end is a good player. As a defensive tackle, he’s an exceptional player. That’s really helped us.”
The Redbirds are ranked 23rd in FCS total defense at 323 yards per game and fifth in sacks (3.17).
“They are physically and mentally tough, and they play really hard,” said Spack. “We’ve been able to develop depth there. Those guys get tired, especially rushing the passer.”
That depth consists of ends Will Davis and Rickey Simpson and tackles Tim Dawson and Bradon Prate.
“It’s always a plus to know if you’re tired you don’t have to push yourself,” Palmer said. “You can come off and your backup can do the job just as well as you.”
The defensive line unit has responded favorably to the unceasing and colorful motivational words of Nowinsky.
“He teaches us not to take any practice or any rep for granted,” said Underwood. “We’re working every single day and every single minute we’re on this field.”