Illini's leading receiver wants offense to air it out this season.
CHAMPAIGN — Go ahead.
Name the player who led Illinois in scoring last fall.
Hint: He can kick.
But he most likely won’t this fall.
Answer: Ryan Lankford.
A year ago, the focus surrounding the Jacksonville, Fla., native and son of former Miami Dolphins defensive back Paul Lankford centered more on his rugby-style punting and other special team adventures.
Sure, there was the 52-yard reception he had his true freshman season during the 38-14 rout of Baylor and Robert Griffin III during the 2010 Texas Bowl.
Other than that, the speedster was more known for possibly replacing Justin DuVernois as the Illini punter.
He’ll now head into the 2013 season with the most touchdowns any Illinois player had last year. Granted, it was only five. And Illinois had an anemic offense.
Consider this. Lankford caught a 64-yard touchdown pass from Nathan Scheelhaase on the fourth play of the season against Western Michigan.
Illinois ran 729 more plays the rest of the year. None went longer than Lankford’s first touchdown.
“There’s things I know about now since I’ve been here that I didn’t know about coming out of high school,” Lankford said. “Running routes, reading defenses and the football knowledge of the game has improved rather than just running straight and saying, ‘Hey, throw me the deep ball.’ ”
Illinois didn’t throw the deep ball to Lankford this spring. At least in the spring game. But the senior caught a team-high nine passes for 77 yards. He’ll need to have the same production when he’s going up against defensive backs from Cincinnati, Nebraska, Ohio State and many others this season for the Illinois offense to flourish.
New offensive coordinator Bill Cubit likes to throw the ball. A lot.
In his eight seasons at Western Michigan, Cubit’s teams averaged 481 pass attempts a season.
Fine by Lankford.
The same time span for Illinois, on average, resulted in 343 attempts.
“Coach Cubit knows his stuff,” Lankford said. “We know that it can work because we’ve seen glimpses of what it can actually be. Once everyone gets on the same page, it will be something special.”
The communications major is on track to graduate in December. The NFL is where he’d like to land. Having a productive senior season could go a long way toward accomplishing the task. Seeing the type of senior season fellow Floridian and former first-round pick A.J. Jenkins had two years ago lets Lankford know it’s possible.
“I try to pride myself to be like him on the field because he was the receiver I looked up to since I got here,” Lankford said. “Also being from Jacksonville, he grew up 45 minutes from where I grew up. I’m trying to do things the way he did but also be myself at the same time. Him going in the first round really put Illinois on the map for wide receivers. It’s right there.”
Lankford has a leg up on other returning receivers, especially with Darius Millines’ dismissal from the team last month. Lankford’s 37 catches, second on the team behind Donovonn Young’s 38, are 16 more than the next returning receiver (Spencer Harris), while he accumulated 469 receiving yards — 217 more than Harris.
“It’s always a tough situation when you lose a brother, and me and Darius came in at the same time from the same state,” Lankford said. “He’s always been my boy. He’s going to be missed. He’s a great player who has great talent, so we’ll have to find someone to fill that void.”
Lankford knows doubters are out there about him becoming the go-to wide receiver in Cubit’s offense. He doesn’t pay much attention to it, though.
“I’ve never really been one that’s into the critics,” Lankford said. “People are going to talk. They love you when you’re doing good, and they hate you when you’re doing bad.”
Aaron Bailey has his number.
So do the other freshmen who arrived this month at Illinois for summer classes and workouts.
The Bolingbrook quarterback will wear No. 15 at Illinois, the same number former quarterbacks Tim Brasic and Kurt Kittner sported this century.
It’s the number Bailey wore during his prep career with the Raiders and the number Millines had last season before he was dismissed from the team this spring. On the defensive side of the ball, cornerback Jevaris Little will wear No. 15 this year after switching from No. 11.
Other Class of 2013 signees who arrived on campus in the first few weeks of June have their numbers picked out as well. It appears Caleb Day (No. 7), the other four-star recruit along with Bailey in the class, will play defense.
Day was a threat on both sides of the ball in his senior season at Darby (Ohio), lining up at receiver on offense and in the defensive secondary. But he’s listed as a defensive back on the Illinois roster, and he’d have to get a different number in order to play offense. Junior college transfer wide receiver Martize Barr also dons No. 7.
Day, who likely will play safety, said Earnest Thomas, the only returning starter in the secondary, has provided veteran leadership.
“Right now, he’s been doing a good job of helping me,” Day said. “The first couple weeks are kind of hard, but he’s been grinding me through it.”
Day said he doesn’t have a preference about what position he plays at Illinois.
“Whatever gets me on the field faster,” Day said.
Defensive back Darwyn Kelly (No. 4), linebacker James Crawford (No. 5), defensive end Paul James (No. 6), wide receiver Dionte Taylor (No. 13), wide receiver Marchie Murdock (No. 16), running back Kendrick Foster (No. 25), defensive back Jaylen Dunlap (No. 28), tight end Tyler White (No. 87), linebacker Dawuane Smoot (No. 91), defensive lineman Bryce Douglas (No. 94) and defensive lineman Jarrod Clements (No. 99) are the other freshmen on campus who signed in February. Michael Hermosillo is playing rookie ball for a Los Angeles Angels affiliate in Arizona, while defensive tackle Merrick Jackson did not qualify academically and is enrolled at Iowa Western Community College.
Incoming tight end Trevor Kanteman, a late addition to the Class of 2013 via Pierce (Calif.) College, will sport No. 83.
Along with Little, 11 other returnees will have new numbers for Illinois this season. The roll call consists of receiver Steve Hull switching from No. 5 to No. 9, kicker Taylor Zalewski (from No. 26 to 17), linebacker Zepheniah Grimes (from No. 15 to 33), quarterback James Nudera (from No. 17 to 30), defensive back Davontay Kwaaning (from No. 35 to 37), defensive end/linebacker Houston Bates (from No. 30 to 55), offensive lineman Chris O’Connor (from No. 92 to 73), wide receiver Kenny Knight (from No. 19 to 84), wide receiver Justin Hardee (from No. 84 to 19), long snapper Zach Hirth (from No. 49 to 54) and long snapper Michael Martin (from No. 85 to 56).
June saw Illinois coaches hold plenty of camps for high school athletes and elementary-age children.
May produced more recruiting visits than members of Tim Beckman’s staff could count.
But not once during those two months did coaches oversee workouts by players. They can’t. NCAA rules.
“It all has to be voluntary,” Beckman said. “Everybody is here, though. There were 98 players at my house recently. Of course, it rained so everybody was inside the house and in the garage. They’re all back taking classes, and they have times to work out.”
Unlike in men’s basketball, where John Groce and his staff can oversee practice time during the summer, football isn’t allowed to. Beckman would like to see the rule changed at some point.
“I think that it would be very beneficial,” he said. “Again, we’re trying to teach and provide instruction. I don’t think it needs to be abused. We could do it one hour a week where you could specifically work with a position group. I would love that.”
Lankford said Scheelhaase, along with other wide receivers like Harris and Miles Osei, have helped gather offensive players for workouts this summer when they’re on campus. And it’s a common sight to see players gather to watch film inside the team’s offices at Memorial Stadium.
“It always comes back to establishing a standard and then having guys that are going to reinforce it and keep other guys accountable,” defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “When the summer hits, they have to police it and uphold it. That’s when you win. Not being able to go out there with those guys, as a competitor and a coach, we’d love to do it, but we cannot.”
Some area high school players competed in the Order of the Eastern Star All-Star Game last Saturday at Millikin University in Decatur. The West team beat the East squad 14-0 in a game marred by inclement weather that resulted in a 10-minute running clock in all four quarters.
Cerro Gordo/DeLand-Weldon/Bement coach Andy Kerley led the East squad, which struggled offensively in the poor weather. Ryan Pearce of Villa Grove received Most Valuable Player accolades for the team, while Austin Eckerty of Monticello intercepted a pass.
Another in-state all-star game to take note of is the 39th annual Shrine All-Star Game, set for a 6:30 p.m. kickoff July 13 at Tucci Stadium at Illinois Wesleyan. Kerley will help assist the East team, which will feature seven area players: Ryan Donohue (Monticello), Shane Bruning (LeRoy), Mitch Negangard (Unity), Hans Carmien (Fisher), Dustin Haake (Tuscola), Bailey Runyen (CG/D-W/B) and Aaron Hardimon (Danville).