Illini Prepare For Season Opener

QB Kurt Kittner and the Illini face Middle Tennessee to open the 2000 season.
QB Kurt Kittner and the Illini face Middle Tennessee to open the 2000 season.

Aug. 28, 2000

Audio from Monday's press luncheon

* Coach Ron?Turner addresses the press.

* Middle Tennessee Head Coach Andy McCollum addresses the press.

* Illini QB Kurt?Kittner addresses the press.

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No. 21 ILLINOIS (0-0) vs. MIDDLE TENNESSEE (0-0)

Sept. 2, 2000
2:30 p.m. CT
Memorial Stadium (70,900)
Champaign, Illinois

Both the Fighting Illini and the Blue Raiders return a wealth of experience to the offensive side of the ball the Blue Raiders losing just one starter on offense. Both teams line up behind veteran quarterbacks. The Raiders are led by junior Wes Counts. He broke five single game records and set six season marks in 1999. The southpaw QB ranked 26th in the nation in total offense last year. Counts will be looking to connect with last year's leading receiver Kendall Newson, who caught 69 passes for 918 yards and five touchdowns. At tailback, MT has a one-two punch with Jamison Palmer (548 yards, 117 carries) and Dwone Hicks (182 yards on 39 attempts). On defense, the Raiders welcome back seven of their top performers. Among those returning to the Middle Tennessee defense are two of the top tackle leaders and the sack leader from last season in senior defensive end Terrence King and linebacker Keith Pauldo.


- Beginning his fourth year at the helm of the Fighting Illini Football program, head coach Ron Turner has Illinois geared toward one of the greatest turnarounds in college football. After sub-par seasons in 1997 and `98, Turner led the Illini to an 8-4 record and a 63-21 thomping of Virginia in the Bowl. For his efforts, Turner finished fourth in the Associated Press's Coach of the Year voting. Under Turner, the Illini made the largest jump in college football last year, jumping 76 spots in the Sagarin ratings for an 15th-place ranking in `99 (91st in `98). He enters the season with an 18-27 head coaching record, 11-23 at Illinois. Turner came to Illinois after a four-year stint as the offensive coordinator for the Chicago Bears (1993-96). In 1992, he was the head coach for San Jose State where he turned in a 7-4 record and a second-place finish in the Big West Conference. Turner has served as an assistant at Stanford, Texas A&M, Southern California, Pittsburgh, Northwestern and Arizona working mainly with quarterbacks and receivers during his 20-plus years in college coaching. Turner brings to the 2000 opener with Middle Tennessee a 1-0 record against the Blue Raiders. The Illini downed MT, 48-20, in Memorial Stadium in the home opener in 1998.

- McCollum enters his second year as the head coach of the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee. The Georgia-native graduated from Middle Tennessee in 1983 and has since been a staple in the college football coaching community. After six years as an assistant at MT, McCollum accepted jobs at Texas-El Paso and Baylor working with both receivers and linebackers during that time. In 1998, he returned to his alma mater as the Blue Raiders began competition at the Division I level. He led the squad to a 3-8 record in 1999 with a schedule that included road games at Mississippi State, Arizona and Arkansas (all bowl teams). Sept. 2 will be the first meeting with the Illini for McCollum.

As the Illini enter Saturday's 2000 season opener with Middle Tennessee, they bring with them the first Top-25 ranking for the team since prior to the 1995 season when they were rated No. 24. Ranked 21st in the nation by both the Associated Press and the Coaches' poll, the Illini are one of seven Big Ten teams among the nation's elite.

WeekAPCoachesNo. 1Big Ten Teams
1999 final24th25thFlorida State7
2000 preseason21st21stNebraska7

No one can deny the impact quarterback Kurt Kittner made on the Illini in `99 with his 2,702 yards passing, school record 24 touchdown passes and only five interceptions. Kittner's increase in offensive productivity led Illinois to its first bowl appearance in five years. He ranked second in the Big Ten in passing last year, en route to honorable mention All-Big Ten honors. Kittner also engineered a four-touchdown, 280-yard and 73 percent completion performance in the Illini's comeback victory over No. 9 Michigan, 35-29, in "the Big House." He connected with 11 different receivers for touchdowns last season, including three games with four TD passes. The stellar numbers also have earned him recognition as a possible All-America, Heisman Trophy and Davey O'Brien Award candidate.

Although the Illini's equal use of two tailbacks the past two years has kept the Illinois running backs from posting individual 1,000-yard seasons, the running game is more prosperous than ever. The 2,082 yards rushing by the Illini team in 1999 is the most since 1978 when the squad ran for 2,186 yards. The goal for junior Rocky Harvey and sophomore Antoineo Harris is to increase the productivity even more, enabling the first 1,000-yard rushing season since former Illini and current St. Louis Rams fullback Robert Holcombe graduated with the school's all-time rushing title. This year's two-headed tailbacks, Harvey, the elusive, speedy back, and Harris, the strong, power back look to pick up where Harvey and Steve Havard left off last season. The two-tailback combo of Harvey and Havard rushed for 1,564 yards in 1999 which combined ranked third in the Big Ten. With two years under his belt, Harvey is also looking to break into the Illinois top-10 career yardage list. He is currently 17th with 1,408 yards.

After a 41-3 victory over Arkansas State in 1999, the Illini look to win their second consecutive season opener, Saturday against Middle Tennessee, to match the feats of the 1991 and `92 squads. The Illini beat East Carolina 38-31at Memorial Stadium to open the 1991 season, and posted a 31-14 victory over Northern Illinois in front of the home crowd in 1992. The Illini hope to earn their 70th opening day victory in school history (69-36-5 on opening day.) The Illini are 61-20-5 in season home-openers. A win would mean a third straight home opening win for the Illini.

Illinois and Middle Tennessee have had one previous meeting in the series when the Blue Raiders visited Champaign for Illinois' 1998 home opener. After a first quarter dominated by Middle Tennessee, the Illini held the Raiders scoreless in the final three periods to win 48-20. Middle Tennessee took an early 10-0 lead before a 48-yard run by Rocky Harvey put the Illini on the board. On the next possession, Middle Tennessee's Sulecio Sanford returned the kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown. Another field goal made the score 20-7 at the end of the first period. In the final three quarters, Harvey and Steve Havard combined for four touchdowns and quarterback Mark Hoekstra added another six points with a two-yard keeper. Illinois' final six points were scored when Asim Pleas returned an interception 89 yards for the score to make the final 48-20.

Although the Illini list only four returning starters on the defensive side of the ball, the small number can be deceiving. Returning from `99 are defensive end Fred Wakefield, defensive tackle Brandon Moore, safety Muhammad Abdullah and linebacker Michael Young. What that list doesn't take into account is the amount of time spent on the field last season by the veteran back-ups. Defensive tackle Jason Eberhart spent five games as the starter last year for an injured Mike McGee, while cornerback Trayvon Waller was also used as the fifth defensive back and subbed for an injured Tony Francis. Safety Bobby Jackson sat out the 1999 season with a torn ACL knee injury, but returns for his third-year as a starter. Jackson was the strong safety for Illinois in `97 and `98 recording two picks, seven tackles for loss and 87 total tackles during the stint. Senior linebacker Robert Franklin may not have been listed as a starter in 1999, but he still tallied 37 tackles and three for loss, including two key tackles for loss in the Illini's win over No. 9 Michigan and started in nine games at middle linebacker in 1998.

One of the biggest questions of the preseason was ... who will take over the kicking duties from the Illini's single-season scoring record holder, sixth-round NFL draft pick placekicker Neil Rackers. After a heated battle through the spring and fall camps, junior punter Steve Fitts has won the duties. Fitts will continue his punting responsibilities, in which he ranked among the top punters in the nation last year with a 42.3 average, and add to that the role of extra-point and field goal kicker. Junior walk-on Neil Adams (6-3, 245) from Naperville, Ill. will enjoy the duty of kickoffs and try to match last season's numbers of 46 touchbacks in 77 tries. Adams is a former all-state soccer player for Naperville Central HS, earning Player of the Year honors from the Naperville Sun.

Don't be too surprised when you're seeing double in the Illini secondary. The brother safety duo of Marc and Bobby Jackson are prominent fixtures in the defensive backfield. Bobby, a junior, sat out last season with a torn ACL, while his younger brother, Marc, got experience as a true-freshman. This year, the two will be proving experts wrong as they help lead the Illini back to the nation's elite in turnover margin. To make things even more complicated Robert Jackson, the duo's father, serves as the team's wide receivers coach. With the injury to Brandon Lloyd during the offseason, the wide-receiver spots are up for grabs. Slated to start at the two receiving positions are cousins, Greg Lewis and Walter Young. Another pair of brothers are members of the Illinois squad. Brian Hodges is a junior tight end and his brother Aaron is an offensive guard who redshirted during the 1999 season.

Senior offensive tackle Marques Sullivan became the first Illini player in five years to earn the prestigious honor of preseason All-American by Playboy magazine. Sullivan was a integral member of an offensive line that held four defenses (Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern and Iowa) without a sack and posted the fifth-best rushing numbers in the conference, 2,082 yards and third-highest Big Ten passing yard with 2,805. Athletes selected to the team traveled to the Playboy ranch in Arizona in May and will be honored in the football preview issue of Playboy on shelves in September. The last time an Illinois player earned these honors were by linebackers Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy in 1995.

Senior, linebacker Michael Young has been named to the preliminary list of candidates for the Butkus Award, which honors the nation's top collegiate linebacker. He is making his first appearance on the list and is one of 10 players selected from the Big Ten Conference. Young is beginning his fourth year as a starter for the Illini, and ranked sixth on the team in total tackles in 1999. He forced three sacks, four tackles for loss and one fumble while tallying 48 tackles last year. Young is the only returning starter for the linebacking corp this season and serves as one of the main leaders on the young Illinois defense. The watch list will be trimmed to 10 semi-finalists on Oct. 19 and the three finalists will be announced on a national teleconference on Nov. 9. The winner will be announced Friday, Dec. 8 at the Hard Rock Live in Universal Studios.

Junior, safety Muhammad Abdullah was named among 40 players as a candidate for the 2000 Thorpe Award which honors the nation's top collegiate defensive back. Abdullah, the two-year starter, is one of only four Big Ten players selected to the list. Abdullah, who is an all-Big Ten candidate, is making his first appearance on the list. He led the team in interceptions with five picks and 52 return yards in 1999. His defensive efforts, which also include recovering four fumbles, helped lead the Illini to a No. 2 national ranking in turnover margin. With his interception, Abdullah led the Illini in total tackles in the 63-21 win over Virginia in the Bowl. Finalists will be invited to ESPN's College Football Award Show at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. Where the winner will be announced Dec. 7.

After a stellar true-freshman season in which he averaged 17 yards per reception, sophomore wide receiver Brandon Lloyd suffered a broken femur in the offseason and will miss the entire 2000 campaign. Lloyd ranked third on the team in 1999 with 30 catches for 511 yards and was the leading receiver returning. Lloyd also played a key role on special teams, returning both kicks and punts in 1999 averaging 38 yards per return. He also threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to quarterback Kurt Kittner in the Bowl and ran the ball twice for 35 yards.

The Ron Turner Show will air every Monday during the season at 6:05 p.m. Each week the radio show travels to different locations on campus. The following is a list of locations for the show:

Aug. 28Delta Delta Delta sorority
Sept. 4Alpha Tau Omega fraternity
Sept. 114-H House sorority
Sept. 18Delta Upsilon fraternity
Sept. 25Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity
Oct. 2Alpha Gamma Delta sorority
Oct. 9Beta Sigma Psi fraternity
Oct. 16Phi Kappa Psi fraternity
Oct. 23Nabor House fraternity
Oct. 30Koinonia Christian Cooperative
Nov. 6Alpha Gamma Sigma (IlliDell) fraternity
Nov. 13Alpha Delta Phi fraternity

The Ron Turner Show, taped after each week's game, will air on the following dates and times:

AltonAT&T CableTuesday6:30 p.m.
BellevilleAT&T CableTuesday9:30 p.m.
Thursday10 p.m.
Friday4 p.m.
ChampaignWCIASunday10:45 p.m.
ChicagoFox SportsTuesday2:30 p.m.
MaryvilleCharter CableThursday6 p.m. & 8:30 p.m.
PeoriaAT&T CableWednesday7 p.m. & 11 p.m.
Thursday7 p.m. & 11 p.m.
St. LouisAT&T CableTuesday10:30 p.m.
Thursday9:30 p.m.
Friday10:30 p.m.