Travis Niekamp's Keys to Illinois State's Defensive Powerhouse

Travis Niekamp’s Keys to Illinois State’s Defensive Powerhouse

Shortly after the Redbirds battled North Dakota State in a defensively dominant FCS quarterfinal matchup, Illinois State’s Travis Niekamp appeared at the 2020 AFCA Convention sharing his philosophy on how he has built a defensive powerhouse. Coach Niekamp is currently the defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach at his alma mater, Illinois State University. Prior to joining the Redbirds’ staff, Niekamp served as the special teams coordinator and linebackers coach at the University of Montana. Coach Niekamp has also spent time at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, Washington State University, Eastern Washington University, and Army West Point.

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The two main topics Niekamp discussed during his Redbird Defense presentation were first, and foremost, the importance of building a sustainable philosophy that aids in establishing program culture, and secondly, the weekly game plan he has instilled as the defensive coordinator at Illinois State.


When determining culture, Niekamp addressed that you first have to look at philosophy; both within the individual and throughout the staff. Niekamp’s personal philosophy consists of four key components:

  1. It’s not about me
  2. We are educators
  3. Leadership
  4. Consistent

Once a personal philosophy is established, Niekamp stated that it is then necessary to form a staff philosophy. The Illinois State Redbird staff philosophy stems from these five points:

  1. Less is more
  2. Coach the details
  3. Problem solve
  4. Open forum
  5. Compete/don’t compare

Niekamp passionately advised the crowd that no program culture can be successful without knowing, and investing in your personal and professional philosophy. Once philosophy is established, Coach Niekamp discussed how he and his staff have been able to promote the non-negotiable standards that makeup Illinois State’s culture.

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Redbird Standards:

  1. Effort
  2. Do your job violently
  3. Defend every inch
  4. Embrace adversity

However, Niekamp also stressed how these philosophies and standards do not always come easy. Adversities strike every program, but at Illinois State Niekamp proclaimed they strive on adversity, failures, and triumph. He mentioned the essentiality of keeping your individual and program priorities close and distractions afar. Simply stated, “Priorities are a choice. You choose your actions and those actions show your priorities.” said Coach Niekamp. He addressed that everything else is essentially a distraction, and nonetheless drama.

Some ways that Illinois State estrays from distractions are by keeping their core values at hand. In addition to their philosophy and standards, the Redbirds also incorporate fundamental everyday drills (EDDs) that keep them focused and consistent no matter the circumstance. These drills all revolve around three simplistic components:

  1. Footwork/efficient movement
  2. Block destruction
  3. Tackling

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In his presentation, Niekamp broke down the fundamental characteristics that have established Illinois State as a defensive powerhouse. For more details on how Coach Niekamp incorporates these components into his weekly game plans, make sure to tune into the complete video through your AFCA member portal!

To watch Coach Niekamp’s Breakout Session, along with numerous other videos and content, please log in to your AFCA membership account and search through the AFCA Educational Library. 


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