Tate: Cal roster has the look of Olympics

Tate: Cal roster has the look of Olympics

"Who are those guys?!?"

– Butch Cassidy to Sundance

They're converging from all over the world to plug the spigot on the Illini's offensive outpouring.

At California, where 45 percent of the incoming freshman students are Asian-American, the names tell it all.

Of six Nigerians on the Bears' football team, two are starters in the secondary: Chidi Iwuoma and Nnamdi Asomugha (Nigerian for "Jesus lives"). Another carries 295 pounds at tackle: Daniel Nwangwu.

Shaun Paga is a New Zealander, and he is a substitute at defensive end for two deeply blood-lined starters: Tully Banta-Cain, cousin of NBA forward Rodney Rogers, and All-American Andre Carter, son of 12-year Denver Broncos star Rubin Carter.

Cal kicker Mark Jensen grew up in Denmark and served on a Mormon mission in Leipzig, Germany.

And products of Hawaii dot the Bear roster, most prominently in an offensive backfield where two athletes with Nigerian bloodlines grew up there, 260-pound fullback Keala Keanaaina and tailback Adimchinobe Echemandu, along with native Hawaiian Joe Igber.

Geez! Keanaaina, Echemandu, Iwuoma, Nwangwu ... announcer Jim Turpin only has to learn to pronounce them. Ron Turner has to figure out how to block them and stop them.

So when Turner expresses concerns about Cal speed, he isn't referring simply to former Junior National sprint champion Phillip Pipersburg at wide receiver. Turner is talking about team speed, the kind that can force a game strategist to rework his schemes.

Carter draws extra concern

Harry Hiestand, the unsung hero (outside the squad, not inside it) of the UI's offensive resurgence, first must determine how to deal with Carter.

The 265-pound sackmaster would have gone high in the NFL draft if he had elected to turn pro after his junior season.

"He is a tremendous rusher," Hiestand said. "He has brains, speed and long arms, and he plays with great leverage. He's what everybody is looking for. We'll use different methods to get help in blocking him. Last year he always lined up on the tight end, but against Utah Saturday he moved back and forth. We'll be aware of where he lines up."

Carter had a team high seven solo tackles, three behind the line, in Cal's 24-21 win against Utah. He was the leader a year ago of a Cal unit that led the Big Ten in yards allowed.

"The biggest thing we have to do in all our assignments is stay on balance and in front of people," Hiestand said, "and we need Kurt Kittner to get rid of the ball quickly. We also need to mix up the run and pass, which is what we do anyway. This will be a test of our ability to communicate and react to tremendous athleticism."

Illini average 43.7 for six games

There is a growing suspicion, propelled by Illinois' scoring average of 43.7 points in a six-game win streak, that the five-man unit of Luke Butkus, Jay Kulaga, Ray Redziniak, Marques Sullivan and Tony Pashos, supported by quality sub David Diehl and veteran tight ends Josh Whitman and Brian Hodges, might be the UI's premier blocking unit in many years.

The 262 points is the largest six-game UI outpouring in nearly a century, remarkable considering the Illini scored more than 16 points once in 1998 and managed 119 points in the 0-11 campaign of 1997.

"The season is too early to make judgments," Hiestand said. "The thing I looked for last week was improvement over Game 1, and we got that. The key is that these five linemen play well together. Everybody has limitations of some kind, but these guys are fighters. They're on the right track, and they're pushing themselves hard.

"Redziniak is another example of the amazing things that the mind can do. They said he wouldn't be ready for the opener, but he was. Now he acts like he's 100 percent (from a spring leg fracture). Maybe he can't go 75 of 80 plays on a hot day, but we'll keep him on the field as long as he's productive.

"Cal comes in here with some exceptional athletes, but it isn't always the opponent that gets you beat. You can be your own worst enemy. There are things you can control regardless of who you're playing against. That's what I like about these guys: They're good at concentrating on the things they need to do. That means a lot."

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette.

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports