Jeff Illies wasn’t sure if he wanted to play basketball or football at the college level. The Wyndmere-Lidgerwood, N.D., standout was a three-time, all-state performer in the fall and a four-time, all-district player in the winter for the Warbirds.
Illies decided to go with football, but that didn’t mean his basketball skillset was put aside.
The North Dakota State redshirt, freshman tight end has become a threat in the passing game with his ability to go up and get the ball at its highest point. He showed that to the coaching staff last year on the practice squad. This year, Illies is ready to show his ability on game days.
And he did so on Sept. 13.
Illies caught the game’s first touchdown against Incarnate Word. On the 11-yard strike, Illies went up and caught the ball with a defender draped over his back.
“It was an unreal feeling,” Illies said. “(It’s) definitely the highlight of my sports career.”
The catch brought the Fargodome crowd of 19,020 to its feet, but the NDSU coaches have seen plays like that for more than a year.
“Jeff is more of a pass-catching tight end,” tight ends and fullbacks coach Tyler Roehl said. “He’s very good and detailed in his routes (and has) very sure hands. I think he’s a very good receiving tight end. He gives us another option in the pass game and he can stretch the field vertically a little bit better than our other guys.”
Division I challenges
But it didn’t come easy for Illies. Going from 9-man high school football to Division I brought its challenges.
“It was a dramatic change the first year,” Illies said. “The smallest things like the language they use and the terminology was all foreign to me. But I’ve grown accustomed, and it’s second nature now, and I feel like I fit in pretty good.”
Finding the right fit was always a priority for Illies when he was being recruited. After an offer from NDSU the summer going into his senior year, Illies was still deciding if football or basketball was his future. After he decided football, Illies had another decision to make.
He contemplated going to Minnesota State University Moorhead, where coaches said he would likely play right away. But it came down to playing at the highest level possible, and NDSU turned out to be the right choice, he said.
The path to earn playing time, though, became a lot tougher. Illies came in at 198 pounds. The 6-foot-3 tight end is now 215 pounds.
“Coach (Jim) Kramer does an excellent job,” Illies said of his strength and conditioning coach. “He definitely keeps you on your toes with the weights. Last year, I think we weighed in everyday. He was being patient with me and understands that they want to keep me as mobile as possible.”
Illies doesn’t have the size of the typical bruising tight end NDSU is known for. The Bison are a run-first team, making the tight end position valuable in the run game. That resulted in a few “welcome to Division I football” moments for Illies, like being popped by linebacker Travis Beck while playing scout team.
But Illies has shown the type of threat he can be in the passing game.
“Hearing things from other coaches, he was dangerous on the scout team,” Roehl said. “He showed the ability to go up and get the ball and just be a pest over there and give them such a good look that they didn’t want to go against him.”
Moving up the depth chart
Illies transitioned from scout team to contributing on more and more plays as this season progressed. He has two catches for 32 yards on a tight end depth chart, which features a sixth-year senior and a junior.
“(I) definitely just wanted to contribute and make as many plays as possible,” Illies said of his goals entering this season. “I knew they were going to be presented. (The coaches) were talking about it all off-season. I just wanted to make an impact wherever I could.”
After the UIW game, NDSU head coach Chris Klieman made it a point to stress Illies’ impact.
“Jeff Illies made a great catch, guys,” Klieman said of the touchdown grab. “Carson (Wentz) put it in the only spot it could be and Jeff went and got it. Everyone remembers the first play of Jeff’s college career, dropping a ball he should’ve caught against Iowa State and getting knocked out the rest of the game. Well the kid’s came back and has made two critical plays for us.”
While playing for the three-time FCS champions, climbing the depth chart isn’t easy, especially for a redshirt freshman. Roehl said Illies still needs to come along in the run game, because they can’t just throw him in on pass plays.
But from spring football to now, Illies has progressed to where Roehl said they can throw him in on some different concepts and “give some defensive coordinators fits.”
Other small town players
Illies isn’t the only small town guy to make an impact, though. The Bison have been able to keep North Dakota kids in their home state and make it an emphasis to scout every high school in the state, even the small towns. Beck from Munich, Landon Lechler from Beach and Jack Plankers from Kindred have all started for the Bison.
“It’s a huge key for us to dig in the states of North Dakota especially … for these small-town gems you could say that are being overlooked,” Roehl said. “With myself being from North Dakota, it’s especially unique to keep finding kids in our state. That is our priority; it really is.”
Illies has added himself to that list of key contributors. Even though the stage has grown significantly bigger, football is still football. And Illies is glad he’s still playing it.
“It’s been amazing,” Illies said. “(It’s the) hardest I’ve ever had to work in my life, but (it’s) definitely worth it. (It’s a) great group of guys, and it’s literally another family. I feel really at home here.”