NORMAL — While Cole Mueller certainly derived enjoyment from his career-high 144-yard rushing effort against Eastern Illinois in Illinois State’s 31-24 victory, he gained no comfort.
“You can never get too comfortable,” Mueller said Tuesday at Hancock Stadium. “We’ve got a great running back room. Everybody can break them and have big plays and big games.”
Still, entering ISU’s 2 p.m. Missouri Valley Football Conference opener at Southern Illinois on Saturday, Mueller is the Redbirds’ “hot back.”
“He’s been pretty hot these last couple games,” said ISU coach Brock Spack. “All our backs are playing really hard. There is competition in that room for carries. They are all doing well. I’m very pleased with our running backs.”
Mueller rushed for 111 yards in the season-opening win over Butler, including an 80-yard touchdown. He has 261 yards as the Redbirds have gone 2-1 over three games.
Also very much in the ISU tailback picture are Kevin Brown (89 yards), Nigel White (76) and Pha’leak Brown (76).
“Cole can run the ball downhill. He’s what our offense was missing in the spring,” Spack said. “We need a big back and he’s big back that can run. He gets vertical. He doesn’t play east and west, he plays north and south. He’s a handful, and he will surprise you how fast he is.”
A 6-foot, 215-pounder from Wentzville, Mo., Mueller committed to sign with Kansas the summer before his senior year in high school.
Mueller then visited Kansas after Les Miles took over as head coach. Miles assured Mueller the scholarship offer still stood, but later reduced it to a preferred walk-on status.
Mueller was in a bit of a predicament. Other schools interested in him moved on months ago when he committed to Kansas.
“I was at wrestling practice one day and got called out of practice,” said Mueller. “Coach Spack was at my house. I thought ‘there’s a school here.’ "
Mueller considers himself fortunate.
“Honestly, I’m kind of glad they pulled it because KU isn’t the greatest,” he said. “It worked out for the better, no doubt. They like to throw the ball now with their new coaches. I doubt I would be playing as much at KU.”
Simon out for season
The Redbirds lost a key defender in the Eastern game when jack linebacker Brandon Simon suffered an ankle fracture that will sideline him the rest of the season.
Simon finishes with eight tackles after ranking tied for sixth in the four-game spring season with 18 stops.
“Brandon will have surgery this week unfortunately,” Spack said.
Sophomore Damien Jackson moves into the starting lineup at jack with Blake Fehrmann shifting from end to second team jack.
“We really like Damien a lot. He’s going to be a really good player,” Spack said. “He has a good motor, good length and he’s a good athlete. Obviously, we didn’t want to lose Brandon. But we feel good about our depth there.”
“You’ve always got to be ready when your number is called,” Jackson said. “I’ve got to prepare the same way I always have. It feels bad to see someone go down like that. But the next up has got to get ready.”
ISU could be without another defensive starter in free safety Clayton Isbell, who is in concussion protocol after the Eastern game.
Dillon Gearhart would take over for Isbell if he in unable to play.
O line happenings
Center Drew Bones, who left the Eastern game with an ankle problem, practiced on a limited basis Tuesday and Spack expects him to play Saturday.
Tackle Peyton Asche has been declared out for the season after a knee injury in the Sept. 11 loss at Western Michigan.
Asche will have surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in early October after swelling goes down completely.
Deming Player of Week
Defensive end Braydon Deming, in just his third game as a Redbird after transferring from Montana, was named MVFC Defensive Player of the Week after recording 10 tackles and four for lost yardage against Eastern.
Spack said linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh (11 tackles) and cornerback Jarrell Jackson (95-yard interception return) also were worthy of the honor.
A correction revealed ISU gave up 38 less yards to Eastern last week.
Instead of being outgained by the Panthers 315-293, the Redbirds held a total offense edge of 293-277.
After setting ISU’s career record for coaching victories with 87 against Eastern, Spack was informed of a pleasingly ironic twist.
Former Purdue coach Joe Tiller, Spack’s longtime boss and close friend who is now deceased, also had 87 wins when he set the Boilermakers’ career record.
Blocking it out
The Redbirds survived both a blocked punt and a blocked field goal in the Eastern game even though the Panthers returned the punt rejection for a touchdown.
According to Spack, the ISU punt team incorrectly shifted their protection to one side, leaving an unblocked rusher on the other.
The Redbird coach believes Aidan Bresnahan’s field goal attempt was a bit low and the protection was relatively sound.
“The kick was low, but I don’t know if it was grossly low. The snap was a little high, but not grossly high,” he said. “He (Bresnahan) hesitated and the ball came off his foot a little lower than it should have. There were multiple things that led to a blocked kick.”
Family Day tickets
Only standing room tickets are available to the general public for the Oct. 2 Family Day against Missouri State.
The usual allotment of student tickets will be sold at the gate.
Contact Randy Reinhardt at (309) 820-3403. Follow him on Twitter: pg_reinhardt