CHAMPAIGN – There was a time, first during the Nitschke-Butkus-Hansen heyday, then in the Hicks-Studwell-Sullivan era, and more recently in the Howard-Holecek-Hardy period when Illinois was legitimately called Linebacker U.
Then there was 2005, about which little can be said. Opponents ran around, through and over the Illini.
"Our linebackers were young, inexperienced and not ready," said coach Ron Zook, "but we had no choice in the matter. Brit Miller was a true freshman who had been primarily a quarterback in high school (Decatur Eisenhower). Now he's starting to feel at home. He's a lot better now."
Linebackers coach Dan Disch isn't ready to say linebacking is solidified, but it had that look this past week. Juco transfer Antonio Steele flashed his No. 40 throughout Saturday's scrimmage to stay a step ahead of junior Anthony Thornhill on the outside. Champaign's J Leman is entrenched in the middle, allowing Zook to test 2005 starter (five games) Remond Willis at defensive end.
Disch and Zook like what they see in the Steele-Leman-Miller trio, and it's likely to stay that way at least until Rahkeem Smith arrives from Hargrave Prep School.
"Rahkeem will be an inside backer," Zook said. "We'll see what happens when he gets here. For now, I like the move of Willis to end. He is undersized but he's athletic and, like Will Davis (who moved there from tight end), he has good leverage off the edge."
On the spot
Disch is more "wait and see" than Zook, saying:
"We have two goals at linebacker," Disch said. "One is to put the best three players on the field. The other is to put each one in the spot that suits him.
"I don't want to judge and say we're better until we play a game. Steele is aggressive and is improving every day. He and Justin Sanders (safety) are good pickups from the junior college ranks. We're throwing a lot at them."
Steele needed junior college not because of grades but because he weighed a mere 185 pounds as a senior at Cleveland St. Peter Chanel. Brother Markus Steele, who played three years at Southern Cal and three years in the NFL, directed him to Long Beach City College.
"Those two years, with the weather and all, were like a vacation," he smiled Saturday. "I like the staff here and chose Illinois over Texas A&M and Mississippi. Leman and Miller are helping me get acclimated and reminding me about the signals. This spring gives me a big advantage over the guys coming in later. But I still have a lot to learn because coverage changes after the ball is snapped, depending on what the receivers do."
Zook says Steele is exactly what he expected based on Long Beach game film. Said the head coach:
"Antonio has the ability to run and slip blocks, and he'll play even faster as he learns the defense. He makes plays. He'll be on the field a lot. Both he and Sanders are doing the job in the classroom and on the field. We are very pleased with both of them."
If Zook's seven additions this spring are an indication, this will be a banner recruiting year. Steele and Oklahoma transfer Akim Millington head into next Saturday's 1 p.m. spring game as starters. Sanders is the nickel back, which means he'll be in the defensive alignment at least half of the time. Kyle Yelton is Steve Weatherford's replacement as punter. Veteran corner Alan Ball broke his arm Saturday, and prep schooler Dere Hicks has shown enough to take his place with the regulars. The other prep schooler, Randall Hunt, has progressed as a solid second-teamer at offensive tackle. And Decatur receiver Marques Wilkins is working his way up the ladder.
That's seven for seven, a highly unlikely percentage.
The cornerback situation was thin (and getting thinner) before Charles Bailey, who started the first four games last year, was switched to receiver this week. That told us three things: (1) like Jody Ellis, the fleet Bailey is not suited for defense, (2) the coaches like Hicks at corner and (3) they believe autumn arrivals Vontae Davis (Washington, D.C.) and Chris Duvalt (Lakeland, Fla.) will be ready for serious backup duty Sept. 2 against Eastern Illinois.
Across the board, from quarterback to tight end to the secondary, assumptions are being made that help is coming. Counting the seven who are already here, don't be surprised if 15 members of this 2006 recruiting class wind up in key roles.
So if someone in the know holds up three fingers, indicating the number of years it'll take the Zook program to reach bowl eligibility (six wins), that's just being realistic, not pessimistic. In the Big Ten, success doesn't come easy for first-year players. But the early read on Zook's recruiting is highly promising ... and if quarterback depth behind Tim Brasic is a concern, you can't help but notice hot prospect Juice Williams making the trip from Chicago and standing directly behind the huddle day after day.
Williams and his pass-receiving buddy, Chris James, were two of 20-odd high schoolers at Saturday's session, among them the state's premier defensive end, junior Martez Wilson of Chicago Simeon.
Recruiting never stops, and Zook probably works harder at it than any coach in Illini history.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.