CHAMPAIGN – The enigma wrapped in No. 94 is apparently headed back to the University of Illinois campus.
Eric Jefferson, touted as one of the best freshmen in the nation before last season, has told UI football coach Ron Turner he will return to the team.
"Right now, we expect him to come back and just see how he does," Turner said.
Turner is scheduled to meet with Jefferson this week. Turner's only contact with the defensive end has been by phone.
Jefferson isn't easy to reach. His Champaign number has been disconnected. He had no phone at the apartment in Shreveport, La., where he spent the semester break. Even his mother, Dessire Crawford, has trouble getting ahold of him.
"I can't tell too much about Eric because Eric doesn't talk a lot," Crawford said. "It's kind of like pulling teeth from a hen. You have to ask him and ask him. That's just Eric."
Jefferson hasn't talked to the media since early in his freshman season. He was injured during most of training camp and then-UI head coach Lou Tepper decided to redshirt him.
Jefferson stopped coming to practice because of what Tepper called an unspecified medical problem. Jefferson was ruled off limits to the media.
Crawford won't say why her son stopped practicing with the team.
"You're in the wrong ballpark to get that one now," Crawford said.
Jefferson didn't have the dream freshman season his mom had hoped for.
"I didn't really get on him," Crawford said. "He's a long way from home. We just tried to support him through the whole thing and give him time to get himself together and make some good decisions. Coming back to Illinois, hopefully, is that good decision."
Crawford said Jefferson isn't thinking about transferring to a school closer to home.
"I talked to him with about it. I asked him if he would consider transferring and he said no, he's going to go back to Illinois," Crawford said.
Crawford also talked to Turner and liked what the new UI coach had to say.
"I think he's going to be a great, great, great influence on the whole program," Crawford said.
But she was also disappointed to see Tepper fired.
"I'm going to miss my Lou," Crawford said. "That was my friend. I loved Lou."
Jefferson wasn't the only 1996 recruit to miss the season. Defensive end Jason Eberhart of St. Louis never made it to campus because he didn't meet NCAA clearinghouse requirements.
Eberhart has committed to Turner, 1 of 11 players already set to sign in early February. Eberhart spent the first semester at home.
The Illini lost out on News-Gazette All-Stater Damien Anderson of Wilmington. The running back earlier this week orally committed to play at Northwestern.
Turner didn't officially join the Illini until Dec. 23. He hit the ground running, or flying.
Turner has made recruiting visits to Oregon, Tampa, Fla., Miami, Atlanta, Mississippi and Connecticut.
"I think it's going very well," Turner said. "The response has been outstanding throughout the country. These next two weeks will be key. We've got some excellent players that we're visiting, that are coming in. Now we've just got to get a few of them to commit."
Illinois have five players on campus this weekend: Anthony Hurd, defensive lineman Clint Hurtt from Milford (Conn.) Academy, lineman Jay Kulaga of Seminole, Fla., linebacker Mondrian Long of Sarasota, Fla., and Oliver King of Saginaw, Mich.
King, the son of former Illini running back Sam Price, is also considering Minnesota, Louisville and Kansas.
The Illini are expected to have 15-16 visits next weekend.
Friends in high places.
One of Turner's close friends landed a pretty good job this week.
Steve Mariucci, who worked with Turner at Southern Cal, is the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Mariucci takes over the longtime National Football League power after one season as head coach at California.
"That's one of the premier jobs in all of football," Turner said. "If you want to be in pro football, I don't know if there's a better job."
Turner thinks Mariucci will keep the 49ers successful.
"He's got a lot of energy, very intelligent and gets along great with the players," Turner said."Guys will respond to him."
Paper or plastic?
Turner said he wants to find out the specifics of a new NCAA rule that allows scholarship athletes to work during the school year.
"If we can help them with the job search and help them get jobs, then we'll get involved in that just like everybody else will," Turner said.
Realistically, Turner said, it will be difficult for athletes to work.
"You would have to have those jobs be during the off-season times," Turner said. "I think it would have to be something that would be closely monitored and very few hours."
In other words, don't expect to see an Illini fullback bagging groceries at a local supermarket the day after a game.
Turner has set the UI spring practice schedule. And there's a twist.
The Illini will start spring workouts on March 18. After three days, they'll take a break along with the rest of the campus. Practice will resume April 1 and the spring game will be April 19.
Turner said the spring schedule reminds him of working in the National Football League.
"It's like a three-day minicamp and then we jump into spring ball," Turner said.
Turner could have avoided the break by pushing back the spring game. But he wanted the spring drills to end before the start of the May recruiting period.
"We need time after spring ball to be in the office, meet with the players," Turner said. "We need to meet as coaches to get a better idea where we are as a football team. I didn't want to finish spring ball and then go right on the road recruiting."
Turner and his coaching staff need all the time they can get with the players.
"We're going to be evaluating our talent every single minute," Turner said.
Turner's first meeting with his team will be Wednesday.
Four members of Tepper's UI coaching staff have landed jobs. The others are in the market.
"I'm talking to some people, nothing concrete right now," said Dan Roushar, who coached tight ends and offensive tackles for Tepper. "I wish it was more concrete than that. I just got back from the national coaches convention last week and I kind of got the feeling there's a lot of guys in my place and everybody's saying 'Stay patient and good things will happen.' "
Roushar said he wants to stay at the college level. Former Illini assistant Denny Marcin is interested in an NFL job, Roushar said.
"He's too good a coach to stop coaching," Roushar said.
Shawn Simms, who coached the Illini running backs, interviewed at Missouri.
"I think he's being real selective about what he's choosing to pursue," Roushar said.
Former Tepper assistants Chris Cosh and Sean Payton landed at Maryland. Turner hired O'Neill Gilbert and Greg McMahon.
Roushar has been kept busy by an addition to the family. His daughter Marissa was born Dec. 30.
The Southern Illinois head coaching position might interest both Marcin and former Illini offensive coordinator Paul Schudel.
"I know he's pursued some head coaching jobs," Roushar said of Schudel. "It wouldn't shock me at all if he got interested and got in on the Southern Illinois thing."
Roushar has been in contact with Tepper, who resigned this week as Maryland defensive coordinator.
"I was a little surprised, but not totally," Roushar said. "He's been laying real low. I think he really had reservations about going. I felt bad. I felt bad for Maryland. But he's got to do what's right. I know (Maryland head coach Ron) Vanderlinden's putting together a tremendous staff."
UI season football tickets will go on sale in early April. The UI ticket office is waiting for prices to be set.
"My assumption is that what our guys will attempt to do is keep our pricing structure so its in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten," said Mike Hatfield, director of the UI athletic ticket office.
Single-game tickets last season were $24 for three premium games (Southern Cal, Iowa and Ohio State) and $22 for three others (Akron, Indiana and Wisconsin). Season tickets were $20 per game.
In 1996, Illinois had a season-ticket base of about 30,000, Hatfield said.
"The plan is that a new coaching staff will indeed help that," Hatfield said. "If this thing gets going again and it becomes a fun event, this thing should take off like I want it to take off."
Illinois opens at home Sept. 6 against Southern Mississippi. The other home opponents are Washington State (Sept. 20), Penn State (Oct. 4), Purdue (Oct. 25), Northwestern (Nov. 8) and Michigan State (Nov. 22).
Traditionally, Hatfield said, the big sellers have been Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Iowa. Northwestern is approaching that level, he said.