NORMAL — Brock Spack, the burly Rockford East grad who achieved football prominence as both a player and coach, has a stable of players with local ties on his Illinois State University team this season.

As the Redbirds prepare for the season opener Aug. 31 in DeKalb against Northern Illinois University, five area players are on the roster, and two are expected to make significant contributions this year. That is the most local firepower that the 11th-year ISU head coach has ever had, and he's looking to take advantage.

Here’s at a look at ISU players with local ties:

The players

The contingent is led by former Rockford Lutheran star James Robinson, the Missouri Valley Conference’s leading rusher last year, and the IHSA’s all-time leading rusher. Freeport's Zeke Vandenburgh is “a big-time linebacker,” said Spack, a former linebacker at Purdue. Prep star Britton Morris, the Big Northern Conference’s leading passer from North Boone last season also is on the roster, as are former Guilford defensive back Julian Haynie and former Eastland/Pearl City lineman Peyton Asche, who are expected to contribute as role players this season.

“This is the biggest group I’ve had from that area, for sure,” Spack said. “But it’s about the talent. ... It’s worked out pretty well so far.”

How they fit in

Robinson rushed for 1,290 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, after gaining 997 yards and scoring a dozen TDs in 2017. He'll likely be one of the toughest backs to tackle in the league again this season, and he believes he’ll be better than ever.

“I’d say I’m a different running back now,” Robinson said. “I’m more patient. I get more patient every year. I try and get faster every year, too. My game will kind of explain itself once we get it started.”

Vandenburgh, who played in all 11 games and had 22 tackles as a freshman middle linebacker last year, has battled a hamstring injury throughout much of the preseason, and Spack says he’s questionable to even make the trip to NIU for the opener.

However, when he’s healthy, he’s a weapon.

“He’s going to be good ... he is a talented kid,” Spack said. “He’s a big, strong, fast guy, and he’s smart. He has a lot of talent, and should be a really good player. He’s trying to fight through it right now, but he’s just not ready yet.”

The same goes for the other locals, but because of inexperience, not injury. Morris, a true freshman who is currently either the third- or fourth-string quarterback on a team that will be led by fourth-year junior Brady Davis, is not expecting to see the field this season. Asche and Haynie, both redshirt freshmen, will have to find their roles on a deep team.

Team goals

After back-to-back seasons in which they didn't make the playoffs, this is a hungry group that returns 16 starters, eight on both sides of the ball. One of those starters, the 5-foot-10, 220-pound tailback from Rockford, is already being touted as one of the top pro prospects in the MVC — and possibly in the FCS.

But first Robinson needs to focus on getting the Redbirds back to the playoffs.

“This is a huge year for him. There’s a lot of things he has to do. He hasn’t arrived yet,” Spack said of his three-year starter. “There are a lot of eyes on him — a lot of eyes. Even from the league above us.”

Robinson, who is the IHSA all-time leading rusher with 9,045 yards and 158 rushing touchdowns in his high school career, is a two-time, first-team All-MVC running back. He wants to finish his college season strong.

“I want to be better than last year, but the main goal is to just help the team win a championship,” Robinson said after practice on Wednesday. “I know we have the talent to do it, and not doing it is just not acceptable for us.”

What these Redbirds had to say

Spack, on the five locals on his team: “They’re just good players, and like any other good players from Illinois, we’re going to try and recruit them. But obviously we know that area pretty well, and there’s a lot of people up there that we can trust to give us good evaluations for guys we can take a look at.”

LB Zeke Vandenburgh, on his head coach: “A team usually takes on the personality of the head coach, and for us, well, we’re a real confident team. We’re a tough team, and that’s what he is. He’s an old-school, hard-nosed tough kind of guy, and that’s what we are.”

QB Britton Morris, on his goals this year: “Patience, and being a sponge. I’m trying to get as much out of the guys we’ve got out here, and this offense, as I can right now. I’ll keep building my body and working on things like footwork and stuff, but it’s really about being a sponge, and learning everything I can.”

Jay Taft: 815-987-1384; jtaft@rrstar.com; @JayTaft