Versatility and depth is how you can characterize the Illinois backfield under Jim Helms’ five years of tutelage. Last season the Illini rushed for 1,653 yards and did it by spreading the wealth between three of the conferences finest running backs.
What began the year as a two-headed monster in the Illinois backfield quickly became three as sophomore fullback Carey Davis joined the mix. After getting just five carries the year before, Davis quickly became a fan favorite as he rushed for 454 yards and a touchdown. Davis’ totals complimented the always-solid duo of Antoineo Harris and Rocky Harvey who combined for 1,204 yards and 10 touchdowns. Harris led the balanced attack running for 626 yards and six touchdowns despite missing the final-two games with a broken wrist.
Despite losing the team’s top rusher, Helms’ crew responded by running for 116 yards against a vaunted Ohio State defense and 183 more yards against rival Northwestern. Helms’ group also was adept at catching the ball out of the backfield as Illinois backs combined for 57 grabs for 534 yards and four touchdowns. Davis ranked third on the team with 39 catches for 274 yards and three scores.
Once again, the Illini running backs were more productive than ever, netting over 1,700 yards for the third straight season, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since the 1973-75 seasons.
With the highest scoring offense in Illinois history in 1999, Helms tutored a running back corp which posted the best single-season rushing numbers since 1978. On 483 attempts, Illinois ran for 2,082 yards, averaging 4.3 yards per carry. For the season, the Illini averaged 173.5 yards a game. Helms coached the duo of Rocky Harvey and Steve Havard to 1,564 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns.
In 1997, Helms worked directly with record-setting Illini running back Robert Holcombe, who posted his third consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season and became a second-round draft pick by the NFL’s St. Louis Rams.
Before coming to Illinois, Helms, 56, served as the running backs coach at Mississippi State University since 1991 after spending nine years in a similar capacity at Texas A&M. He also coached running backs at Southern Methodist (1981) and Oklahoma State (1979-80). Helms was head coach at Cameron University in Lawton, Okla., from 1976-78 after spending three years as tight ends and offensive line coach at Oklahoma (1973-75) and five years at Texas (1968-72).
A proven winner, Helms has been a part of four national championship squads (Texas in 1969 and 1970 and Oklahoma in 1974 and 1975), 12 conference champions and 15 bowl games. A three-year standout letterman at Texas, he earned his B.S. in speech and history from Texas in 1967.
Helms and his wife Dabney live in Champaign and have four children, sons Clay, Jason and Justin, and a daughter, Genna.