Illini Look To Build On Record-Breaking Season During Spring Drills
March 15, 2000
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - As the Illini enter spring drills, they do so coming off one of the most exciting seasons in Illinois football history and a Micronpc.com Bowl game that still has fans talking - talking about what is next for Fighting Illini football.
After seasons of 0-11 and 3-8 records, third-year head coach Ron Turner took Illinois on a whirlwind turnaround that had the Illini playing in a bowl game for the first time in five years. Illinois' 8-4 record could not accurately depict the accomplishments of the 1999 squad. With 63 points scored against Virginia in the Micronpc.com Bowl, the fighting Illini became the highest-scoring offense in school history with 388 points, surpassing the 380 points scored in 13 games in 1902.
Illinois' exciting come-from-behind victory at Michigan and win at Ohio State made the Illini the first university since 1951 to win at both "The Horseshoe" and "The Big House" in the same season and the first time in Illinois' program history to ever accomplish the feat. The Illini came back from a 20-point deficit against the Wolverines, the largest in school history and handed the Buckeyes their worst home loss since 1946.
The Illini head into 2000 with 41 letterwinners returning from last season's 8-4 squad, including 14 starters. Ten starters return from Illinois' school record offense, including quarterback Kurt Kittner, all five offensive linemen, Ray Redziniak, Luke Butkus, Marques Sullivan, Tony Pashos and Jay Kulaga, tight end Josh Whitman, fullback Jameel Cook, tailback Rocky Harvey and flanker Brandon Lloyd. Defensively, the Illini return tackle Brandon Moore, end Fred Wakefield, linebacker Michael Young and safety Muhammad Abdullah. Illini punter Steve Fitts also returns for his third season as a starter.
Turner on the offense: "We had a very productive season last year, scoring more points than any team in school history. We have many starters back and what we expect from them is improvement. Everyone individually can improve certain areas of their game and as a whole we can become more consistent. We had some games where we scored a lot of points, eight games with over 30 points. But we also had some games where we only scored seven points. I think we will see improvement with more consistency from our offense."
Turner on the defense: "The defensive is obviously where we have the most holes to fill. The bad news is we lose seven starters, the good news is we have some great athletes who have been backing those guys up who got some valuable playing time last year and even the year before. For a team losing seven starters, we still have a fair amount of experience returning."
Here is a position-by-position breakdown of the Illini heading into spring drills:
The quarterback position looks to be a solid one after the performance of junior Kurt Kittner in 1999, throwing for over 2,700 yards, 24 touchdown passes and only five interceptions. His 24 TDs broke a 10-year-old school record set by Jeff George in 1989. Kittner started all 12 games after winning the job in fall drills over senior Kirk Johnson, hitting 216-of-396 passes (55%). He was named Most Valuable Player in the Micronpc.com Bowl for his four touchdowns, becoming the first quarterback in school history to score a rushing, passing and receiving touchdown in a single game.
Kittner engineered key victories for the Illini over No. 9 Michigan and No. 25 Ohio State with four touchdown passes and 200+ yards in each of the road wins. He led the Illini to a perfect 3-0 non-conference record and an upset win at Louisville, passing for 244 yards and four TDs. The junior connected with 14 different receivers, 12 for touchdowns and earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors.
Looking to push Kittner and fill the back-up roles are sophomore Walter Young and redshirt-freshman, Champaign-native Dustin Ward. Young, third on the '99 depth chart, saw playing time but in the capacity of wide receiver. In an effort to get the best athletes on the field, Young worked out as a receiver in fall drills and was utilized for 22.3 yards a game. Both Young and Ward received reps in practice during the season and have shown much improvement.
Turner on the quarterbacks: "Obviously, we were pleased with the play of Kurt Kittner last year. He did many good things out there and became an excellent leader as the season went on. We will draw from the experience he got last year. There is no doubt in my mind that he is one of the top quarterbacks in the nation. The good thing is we have two other guys, Walter Young and Dustin Ward, who are not far behind him. They are very talented players that we can win with as well."
RUNNING BACKSTailback: Junior Rocky Harvey looks to be the starter at tailback heading into spring practice after splitting time with senior Steve Havard last fall. Harvey and Havard presented Turner with a double threat at halfback with each back contributing over 700 yards rushing. This season looks to be much of the same with the return of Harvey and sophomore Antoineo Harris. Harvey totaled 774 yards and seven touchdowns, including 100-yard games against No. 9 Michigan, No. 2 Penn State and Virginia. He also added two touchdown receptions and 243 receiving yards. Harvey's 59-yard touchdown reception and 54-yard touchdown run gave the Illini a 35-29 win over the Wolverines and was named ESPN's Player of the Game for his performance.
Harris saw limited time as the third running back, rushing for 214 total yards and one touchdown. He had five carries for 61 yards in the Illini's 41-26 win at Louisville, including a 47-yard breakaway. Harris scored his only touchdown on an 11-yard run at Indiana. He played in all 12 games making his mark on the special teams unit, forcing a Ken-Yon Rambo fumble on the Buckeye one-yard line on a kickoff return. Also looking to contribute is sophomore, Champaign-native Quincy Washington. Washington moved to tailback after playing free safety for the first half of the season.
Fullback: Junior fullback Jameel Cook made the switch from tailback midway through the 1999 season and the payoff was five touchdown receptions and over 400 yards total offense. Cook was the team's fourth-leading receiver with 26 catches and 288 yards and compiled 121 yards on 19 carries. He scored the first touchdown in the Illini's win over Michigan and caught two TD passes in the Micronpc.com Bowl including a career-long 61-yard reception. Illinois will look to redshirt freshman Carey Davis and sophomore Clayton Mullen for depth. Davis was named the team's Scout Player of the Year.
Turner on the running backs: "At tailback we have Rocky Harvey back who started most of the games towards the end of the season and we have Antoineo Harris who is just waiting to get his opportunity. We are very excited about both those guys and Quincy Washington as well. We have a lot of confidence in all three of our halfbacks. We lose some guys at fullback, so we won't be as deep. But we are very happy with what Jameel Cook offered the team last year and we are excited about what we saw from Carey Davis during practices last year. Fullback is a position where we have quality, but not necessarily depth."
With the departure of senior Michael Dean, the receiving corp once again looks to be a young one. Aside from Dean, four other receivers split playing time in '99 - all of which were freshmen last year.
Flanker: Sophomore Brandon Lloyd started the final seven games at flanker last season and gave the Illini a deep-ball threat recording seven catches for over 30 yards, including a 49-yard TD reception to seal a win at Louisville and a 30-yard TD catch at Ohio State. He totaled 511 receiving yards to break an Illinois freshman single-season record. Sophomore Greg Lewis started the first four games for Illinois and recorded 149 yards for the season. Lewis put the Illini on the board against San Diego State with a 54-yard TD reception.
Split End: Backup quarterback Walter Young looks to be the leading candidate to replace Dean at split end. The 6-5 Young began working out at receiver in fall drills and saw his first major contributions in the Illini's loss to Minnesota when he pulled down a 26-yard reception. The following week he caught a 31-yard touchdown pass to spur the Illini's comeback win over Michigan. For the season, he caught 14 passes for 267 yards. Also battling for the starting spot is sophomore Aaron Moorehead. Moorehead saw limited playing time with only six catches, but was the Illini's sole score with a 32-yard TD reception against Minnesota. Redshirt-freshmen Dwayne Smith and Eric McGoey, who sat out the 1999 season as redshirts, will look for playing time this spring. Smith, a local Rantoul-native, was a Prep Star and CNNSI high school All-American. McGoey, a standout hurdler in high school, scored 21 touchdowns his senior season for 1,276 yards. Also looking to contribute will be junior Chris Allan and sophomore George Mumphard.
Turner on the receivers: "We have the most depth we have ever had at this position. Going into last season, we had only one guy who had ever played in a collegiate game. The young guys really stepped up and played well for us. Brandon Lloyd became a big factor as a true-freshman. Aaron Moorehead, Greg Lewis and Walter Young all stepped in and did good things as very inexperienced receivers. If you add Eric McGoey and Dwyane Smith to the mix, we are going to have quality and depth."
In 1999, Illinois got the play of seasoned veterans from an offensive line that featured three new starters. With only left tackle Marques Sullivan and right guard Ray Redziniak returning from '98, the line was a huge question mark entering last season. What they produced were four sackless games against Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Northwestern and the highest scoring offense in school history. Sullivan and Redziniak earned second-team all-Big Ten honors and Sullivan was named to Sports Illustrated's All-Bowl team for his part in the Illini's 611 yards total offense in the Micronpc.com Bowl.
The offensive line led the Illini to over 2,800 yards passing and opened holes for over 2,000 yards rushing in 1999 and all five starters return for 2000. Alongside seniors Sullivan and Redziniak, the Illini return junior center Luke Butkus, junior left guard Jay Kulaga and sophomore right tackle Tony Pashos. Sullivan and Redziniak, along with Butkus, look to be leading candidates for All-Big Ten honors and Sullivan has been highly regarded as one of the top senior linemen by professional scouts.
Although all five look to retain their starting positions, they will be battled for starting roles by guard David Diehl, tackle Dan Cutter, who got valuable experience on field goal and extra point protection units, and sophomore center James Brown who saw action against Arkansas State for the injured Butkus. Others looking to vy for starting time will be redshirt freshmen and former high school All-Americans Aaron Hodges and Sean Bubin. Redshirt-freshmen Jimmy Bloodworth, Jim Ferguson, and Chris Rucks and sophomore Ed Donoghue will also be looking for playing time.
Turner on the offensive line: "We have all five starters back on the offensive line, a very solid group. I made a statement last year that we were going to have a very good offensive line, I just didn't know how soon they would develop. The second half of the year, the offensive line played about as well as anybody in the league. We need to continue to improve there, but it should be an area where we have a lot of confidence."
After three seasons without a touchdown reception by a tight end, the Illini saw much-needed improvement from a trio that accounted for 311 receiving yards and six TDs. Three-year starter Josh Whitman led the charge as the fifth-leading receiver with 20 catches and 189 yards and three touchdowns. He caught two touchdown passes in the Illini's 46-20 win at No. 25 Ohio State and hauled in a 33-yard reception against No. 2 Penn State. Senior Brian Hodges also returns to split starting time with a wealth of experience, including touchdown receptions against Arkansas State and at Michigan which pulled the Illini to within six points in the comeback victory over the Wolverines. In addition to Whitman and Hodges, the Illini will look to redshirt freshman Kenny Boyle, a highly-touted tight end who set high school records for receptions (71), yards (1,236) and touchdowns (18) in a single season. Senior B.J. Ogata will also serve in a backup role.
Turner on the tight ends: "This is another position where we return a lot of depth. Josh Whitman is returning for his senior and has been a three-year starter. Brian Hodges basically split time with Josh last year, so we really have two starters returning. With the addition of Kenny Boyle, we feel very good about that position. We need to continue to get production out of the tight ends in the passing game which we began to do this year, but that is something we still need to emphasize."
Although the defensive line lost two starters to graduation last season, Mike McGee and Rameel Connor, Illinois has experienced backups needed to step in and fill those roles. Senior Fred Wakefield will look to begin his second-year as a starter at defensive end. Wakefield had four sacks last season and 12 in his career, seventh on Illinois' career list. He started all 12 games and recorded 10 tackles for loss and eight quarterback hurries. Junior Terrell Washington, who gained valuable experience as a back-up at both ends positions will look to battle for a starting spot at the other end. Washington posted five tackles for loss, including three sacks. Pushing Wakefield and Washington at defensive end will be sophomore Mike O'Brien, who contributed in 10 games as a true-freshman, and Robby Long, a junior Champaign native. O'Brien had seven tackles and five quarterback hurries before breaking his leg in the Illini's final regular season game against Northwestern. Long recorded three tackles, one for loss. The Illini will also need contributions from sophomore Tim McGill.
One of the most experienced linemen returning for the Illini will be junior tackle Brandon Moore. Moore is a two-year starter, who ranked sixth on the defense in total tackles. He had eight for loss and five sacks. Moore posted eight tackles in the Illini's win over San Diego State. Moving over from end to tackle for the injured McGee was senior Jason Eberhart who looks to be among the leaders for the other tackle position. Eberhart started his first game at Indiana and tallied nine tackles and was in on four forced fumbles. He also had eight tackles against Minnesota. Moore and Eberhart will be pushed for starting time sophomore Brett Kautter and senior Karleton Thomas. Thomas contributed in 10 of the Illini's 12 contests, recording a sack against Louisville. Kautter saw action in six games and totaled seven tackles and one sack. Other tackles looking to see action will be junior Joe Gal, and redshirt-freshmen Jeff Ruffin and Shaheed Richardson.
Turner on the defensive line: "We lost a couple of starters and backups from last years team. Like some other positions, the younger guys are going to have to step up. We have Brandon Moore back who has been a starter for the last two years, so he has a lot of great experience and will be a dominant factor for us inside. Jason Eberhart had to move to tackle to take up some slack from losing Mike McGee and he did a great job and will continue to improve. Outside, we have Fred Wakefield back who we look to be a big-time, impact player. Now is the time for Terrell Washington, Robby Long, Mike O'Brien, Jeff Ruffin and Shaheed Richardson to step up and get their opportunity to help us. We will play a lot of guys on the defensive line and that is one of the keys at that position. If we can keep guys fresh, we can take advantage of the athletic ability and speed we have."
Although the Illini lose valuable assets in fifth-year seniors Danny Clark and Eric Guenther, their replacements have the experience to make up for their departure. Returning two-year starter Michael Young will anchor the tradition-rich Illinois linebacking corp. Young was the team's fifth-leading tackler and started 11 games for the Illini at outside linebacker. He tallied 48 tackles, including four for loss. He registered seven tackles and a sack in the Illini's win over Michigan. Senior Mon Long will look to start at the other outside spot after a strong campaign as a reserve in '99. Long forced a fumble on a driving Michigan State squad in the red zone and recorded five tackles against Arkansas State. The Illini gain much experience with Robert Franklin at middle linebacker. He started nine games in '98 after Guenther went down with a knee injury and saw increased playing time toward the end of the '99 season. He came up with two key tackles for loss in the Illini's win at No. 9 Michigan and intercepted a pass and registered eight tackles in the season finale against Northwestern.
The Illini will also look to see action from senior Eric Garrett and sophomore Jerry Schumacher who gained experience with playing time last season. One of the most exciting young players on the Illini squad, Schumacher made hard-hitting tackles and blocks on special teams, including one against Minnesota on a punt return. He had five tackles, four solos in the Illini's win over Ohio State. Garrett played in all 12 games recording five total tackles. Also looking to add depth will be senior Marcus Hood and redshirt-freshmen Ty Myers and Aaron Nobles.
Turner on the linebackers: "We lost key elements at linebacker, but the guys stepping in have a lot of experience. Robert Franklin was basically a starter the second half of the year and might have been our best linebacker during that stretch. We have Michael Young, who really took some steps last year, coming back for his third year as a starter. Mon Long got quite a bit of playing time behind Danny (Clark) last year. Jerry Schumacher and Eric Garrett got some great experience last year which will help us tremendously. We will be very young behind those guys with Aaron Nobles, Ty Myers, Marcus Hood, who will need to step up for us to be successful. We feel like we have enough experience that there won't be much of a dropoff from last season."
Safety: The Illini will have to replace three seniors in the secondary, including 1999 Illinois Defensive Player of the Year Asim Pleas and corners Tony Francis and Johnny Rogers. Junior free safety Muhammad Abdullah is the only remaining starter and will be one of the leaders on this young defensive unit. Abdullah led the team in interceptions with five and ranked third on the team in total tackles with 79. He also tallied five passes broken up and four fumble recoveries helping the Illini to a No. 2 national ranking in turnover margin. Joining Abdullah at strong safety will be junior Bobby Jackson. Jackson sat out the 1999 season with an ACL tear, but returned to the Illini scout team for the final two months of the season and looks to be in great health. In his first two seasons at Illinois, Jackson picked off two passes and recovered 10 fumbles. Bobby's younger brother sophomore Marc Jackson will battle Abdullah for time at free safety after backing up both safety spots in '99. M. Jackson got his first start against Michigan State recording three solo tackles. He also was a key contributor on special teams with a blocked punt in his first collegiate game against Arkansas State. Sophomore reserve Carlos Lattimore will add depth at strong safety after seeing time in 10 games last year. He posted four tackles and recovered a fumble at Iowa, while playing on the kick return special teams unit. Other safeties who will see playing time will be juniors Nick Piazza and Bobie Singleton.
Cornerback: The Illini will see fresh new faces at cornerback with Trayvon Waller and Eugene Wilson as the projected starters. Waller saw the most playing time as the fifth defensive back on the Illinois nickel unit. He played in all 12 games with one start at Ohio State and recorded interceptions at Michigan and Ohio State. He posted 29 total tackles, including two for loss. Wilson will look to take over at the other corner position after a strong freshman campaign as a backup and punt return specialist. Looking to add depth and battle Waller an d Wilson will be junior Anthony Hurd, senior Anthony Julian and redshirt-freshman Courtney Miller, who moved from receiver to corner at the end of the season.
Turner on the defensive backs: "The big key in the secondary is that players are going to need to step up at cornerback. We are very solid at safety with Muhammad Abdullah and Bobby Jackson back. With depth from guys like Marc Jackson and Carlos Lattimore, we will again be very solid at safety. Trayvon Waller, who got a lot of experience last year at corner, will need to step up along with Eugene Wilson. We feel very good about both those players, but the depth there is the big question mark."
Kickers: With the loss of placekicker Neil Rackers, the kicking game will hold some question marks. Heading into spring drills, sophomore punter Steve Fitts will have the duties of both punter and kicker. In his first two seasons, Fitts has etched his name in the record books with his outstanding punting numbers. He ranks fourth and fifth on the single-season yardage list and eighth in career yardage. He blasted punts of 75, 74 and 70 yards during the season en route to his 42.3 average. As a high school senior, Fitts was 20-of-29 in field goal attempts and hit 51-of-56 extra points. Fitts will be battled by sophomores J.J. Tubbs, Peter Christofilakos and Brent Peterson.
Turner on the kickers: "The big question there is who will replace Neil Rackers. He is a big loss for us. He was very productive with both field goals and kickoffs. Somebody will just have to step us. Steve Fitts will go into spring camp battling for the kicking job along with Peter Christofilakos and JJ Tubbs."
Specialists: The Illini also return a solid specialist unit of long snappers and return specialists. Senior Nathan Hodel has held Illinois' long snapping duties the last two season and will be battled by junior Patrick Rouse, who saw time in three games last season. Also looking to contribute is junior Mike Malczyk. Fitts, who has been the team's holder for two years, will be replaced by quarterback Dustin Ward for the spring season.
Turner on specialists: "We have Nathan Hodel coming back as our snapper. He is very consitent and steady and he does a good job in coverage. With Patrick Rouse backing him up, who got some reps last year and is constantly getting better, we feel we have a solid unit. Right now, Dustin Ward or Steve Fitts look to be handing the holding duties."
Return Specialists: Last season, Eugene Wilson fell four yards short of setting a school record for punt return yards in a single season. He will get another chance at the record as the Illini's leading punt returner. Wilson began the season on a high note returning a punt 65 yards for a touchdown, the school's first since 1982. He followed that up with a 56-yard return to the two yardline against San Diego State the next week. Wilson will be battled by sophomore Brandon Lloyd, who returned four punts for 65 yards, including a 35 yarder, and junior Rocky Harvey. Two players return from a trio of kickoff returners in 1999. Harvey and Lloyd each averaged 17 yards a return. Harvey totaled 11 returns for 193 yards and a long of 28 yards, while Lloyd returned 10 kickoffs for 171 yards including a 41-yarder.
Turner on return specialists: "We have some athletes with Rocky Harvey, Eugene Wilson and Brandon Lloyd back to return punts and kickoffs. So we have good athletes that we feel should be very solid in an area where we need to improve."