Illini star runner wasn''t always center of attention

Illini star runner wasn''t always center of attention

CHAMPAIGN – Just another face in the crowd.

That pretty much describes Robert Holcombe's standing on the Illinois football team in August 1994. One of the five running back recruits, Holcombe didn't have the reputation of higher-profile teammates.

"There was a lot of talk," said Illinois quarterback Mark Hoekstra, a member of that class. "Terence Marable from Illinois. Will Smith was coming out of the West Coast. There was no word about Robert Holcombe. No one knew."

Now they do.

Three seasons later, Holcombe has separated himself from the rest of his recruiting class, and most of the Big Ten. In the first half of the 1997 opener against Southern Mississippi, Holcombe should become the school's career rushing leader.

Not bad for somebody who came to Illinois with no promises of playing time, or future stardom.

"People tell you 'You come in, you're going to play. You're the guy,' " Holcombe said. "Arizona State, they told me and two other guys 'You're the No. 1 guy.' When I came here, they didn't tell me I was going to be the No. 1 guy, but they said I was going to have a chance. That's all you can ask for as a high school player coming up to the college level."

Hoekstra remembers vividly the first time he saw Illinois' future No. 1 guy.

"I said 'That is a pure thoroughbred,' " Hoekstra said. "He just has that look in his eye and that stature that is just truly made for the game."

Hoekstra couldn't wait to talk about him. When mom and dad called after the first day of practice, the conversation quickly turned to Hoekstra's "discovery."

"They were like 'How's your class?' " Hoekstra said. "I said 'We've got this running back that is going to be one of the best in the game.' "

Turns out Hoekstra knew what he was talking about. Holcombe was a runaway winner in the class competition.

Few survivors

Of the five running back recruits in '94, only Holcombe and Smith are still at the position.

Evansville's Mack Jacobs didn't qualify as a freshman and left school. Marable moved to defensive back. George McDonald went to receiver.

"If I would have had a bad camp, if I had fumbled the ball a lot, they may have thought about moving me to defensive back," Holcombe said. "I would have been upset if I would have gotten moved to another position."

Why did he become the star runner of the group?

"I don't think anyone has the answer to that one," Holcombe said. "Everything happens for a reason."

Holcombe should have "everything happens for a reason" tattooed on his head. He doesn't question the good or the bad of his career.

Three running back coaches in four years? No problem.

"I think that I've learned from each guy," Holcombe said.

A 14-19-1 record in his first three seasons? Not the end of the world.

"I can't really look back and say, 'I wish I would have gone to Arizona State or I wish I would have gone to Cal-Berkeley,' " Holcombe said. "You never know what could happen. I think it was meant for me to come here and I'm glad that I'm here."

So are his coaches and teammates. Hoekstra, battling Tim Lavery this spring for the starting quarterback job, likes the idea of handing off 25 times a game to Holcombe.

"He's pretty much everything you'd look for in a tailback," Hoekstra said. "At that quarterback position, a lot of it's mental. The more people you can count on to take care of things you need to take care of, the easier it is to let things unfold. He's always the guys who is going to get things done."

New duties

Holcombe will be more than just a runner in '97. New coach Ron Turner plans to send him out for passes.

"He's going to get his hands on the ball a bunch," Turner said.

Turner will get no arguments from Holcombe. If all goes as planned, he will gain at least 1,000 yards rushing for the third consecutive season.

Holcombe brushes aside most talk of personal goals. But mention another 1,000-yard season and his tone changes.

"It's important," Holcombe said. "If you're a running back and you start, and they give you the ball 20 times a game, you should rush for 1,000 yards. That should be a personal goal, I think, for any running back."

Beyond 1,000, Holcombe doesn't really care about personal goals. Fans become too consumed with big numbers, he said.

Holcombe points to Iowa State's Troy Davis, who went over 2,000 yards in consecutive seasons. But both years, the Cyclones finished under .500.

"I know it hurts him that they didn't get to play in a bowl game, that they they didn't win many games," Holcombe said. "He'll remember rushing for 2,000 yards, but he'll also remember the wins and losses."

One number Holcombe will remember is 315. That's how many yards he gained last Nov. 16 at Minnesota.

"That might have been just one of those nights," Holcombe said. "I never thought I would run 300 yards in that game."

Holcombe has scanned the game a couple times on tape. He isn't impressed.

"It didn't seem like I did anything that spectacular," he said.

Tim Rose begs to differ. He watched from the other side that night in the Metrodome as Minnesota's defensive coordinator.

In his long career as a defensive coach, Rose had never seen a back play like Holcombe.

"He was great that night," said Rose, now the defensive coordinator at Boston College.

Holcombe had some help in the game from his offensive lineman, Rose said. But not enough to gain 315 yards.

"He made happens things happen, too," Rose said. "If the guys got him 3 yards, he was able to turn it into 7 or 10."

Going into the game, Rose didn't fully appreciate Holcombe's ability.

"His strength and speed were really more than we had bargained for," Rose said. "He was durable and tough."

An unexpected delight

Rose isn't the only coach surprised when he finally gets a look at Holcombe. While he was coaching the Chicago Bears, all Turner knew about Holcombe was what he read in the papers and saw on TV.

"I think he's outstanding, a lot better than I thought he was a year ago at this time, or four months ago," Turner said. "I didn't realize he was that good."

Shortly after Turner was hired, some wondered if Holcombe might leave school early for the National Football League.

"If there was any consideration, it would have been small," Holcombe said. "I don't think I'm where I need to be."

A year under Turner's system, Holcombe figures, can only make him better.

"I think he made the right decision," Turner said. "With the system we're going to run, I think it will benefit him."

Turner said Holcombe can play in the NFL.

"No question," Turner said. "He's got speed, balance, strength, hands."

College life

He's a star player, but you can't tell by the way he lives. The apartment he shares with Illini safety Steve Willis is typical college, without the mess.

Holcombe isn't a neat freak, but he wants things tidy.

"I have to live here," Holcombe said.

The second you walk into his bedroom, you realize Holcombe's serious about football. There's a set of weights, football videotapes, plaques and posters. His game jersey is folded on a desk.

Three posters line the wall behind his bed. On one side, there's Indianapolis Colts running back Marshall Faulk. Dallas Cowboys star Emmitt Smith adorns the other side. In the middle, is a poster of Christ.

He owns what seems to be the requisite appliance of college athletes, a video game machine. His brand of choice is Sony Playstation. His rare free time is spent on "NBA Live."

He just moved up in the vehicle world, to a Chevy Cavalier. Not exactly your $48,000 Wolverine special.

Off the field, Holcombe calls himself "laid back." It's hard to get him angry.

Even before games, Holcombe remains calm.

"I'm not the guy who runs around beating my head on the locker," Holcombe said. "We have a few of them. That's not me."

On the field, Holcombe changes a bit. When the game isn't going well, Holcombe sometimes shows his frustration by slamming the ball to the turf or shouting at himself.

If needed, he'll get on his teammates. He doesn't mind mistakes, as long as they aren't repeated often.

And pity the poor guy who gets called for a personal foul penalty.

"You couldn't have been thinking about team success," Holcombe said. "Things like that really irk me, when people do things that are selfish."