CHAMPAIGN – If a Hall of Fame existed for Memorial Stadium performances, Kent Kitzmann would be included.
Just over 30 years ago, on Nov. 12, 1977, the bruising fullback carried 57 times behind a large Minnesota line.
Fifty-seven times for 266 yards and a 21-0 romp. The injury-riddled Illini reached that November with neither the up-front size nor talent to respond. And that was too often the case since the 1970s.
Oh, there were exceptions: early '80s when All-Big Ten tackles Don Thorp and Mark Butkus spearheaded a rise that led to the perfect Big Ten season in 1983, and the 1988-89-90 period when D-linemen Moe Gardner and Mel Agee were dominant as Illinois posted a Big Ten record of 18-5-1.
And now. Even as the Illini storyline bends around Juice Williams and who'll carry Rashard Mendenhall's load and whether Brit Miller can replace J Leman, the strength of Ron Zook's growing program is the defensive line.
Never has this football program had so many big, agile giants to choose from.
When spring practice opened last week, Josh Brent checked in rock-hard at an incredible 331 pounds, and Will Davis, a second-team all-conference end last season, has the look of a sure-to-be-drafted NFL pass rusher. They're just two of 14 in a big-body group that, as yet, does not include massive D'Angelo McCray (not yet 100 percent after a second knee surgery), temporarily suspended end Jerry Brown and the best prep prospect in the new class, Floridian Corey Liuget.
Liuget, the nation's eighth-ranked defensive end by Scout.com, chose Illinois over Miami, LSU and Florida State. Illinois landed Brent in a showdown with Ohio State. The Illini beat out Penn State and Maryland for prize freshman Reggie Ellis. Florida and Florida State were in the chase for McCray. Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma wanted Brown. Maryland and others sought Clay Nurse.
That's the difference. Defensive linemen are as difficult to attract as basketball centers. There aren't enough to go around. For decades, it was only through special circumstances that Illinois was able to win recruiting battles at the highest level. Gardner, an Indianapolis product, remains the last interior lineman to make all-conference.
Enough of history. Big Tom Sims and the Illini recruiting juggernaut are changing that. And Illinois should be thankful for Sims' presence because, for reasons not fully explained, he was cut loose at Minnesota just as Zook took the Illini job. It was rumored that then-coach Glen Mason, under pressure to make changes on the Gophers' defensive side, unhappily released Sims in a shakeup.
Said Sims: "If I told you everything, it would have to be off the record, so I'm not going to say anything. (Mason) did what he wanted, and it worked out for me. I'm in a great place, and I have great kids.
"When I played at Pitt, we had this kind of talent. All our guys went to the NFL, even the backups. But I've never had this much talent to coach. We have a good experience level going into this season. We have three proven ends in Davis, (Doug) Pilcher and (Derek) Walker. We'll play the guys who earn it."
Last season, recognizing the fierce competition, Sims alternated 10 players at four defensive line positions. Only Chris Norwell and Mike Ware are gone, and Ellis, Liuget and McCray are eager to step in. Illinois never before had such three-deep quality.
That 2007 unit, continuing the improvement that was marked in 2006, held five opponents under 100 yards rushing (Michigan had a mere 115, Wisconsin 127 and Penn State 129). And only two rival runners topped 100 yards. Those are winning numbers. Only in the Rose Bowl, where USC shredded the UI defense for 344 yards, did the unit falter.
"This is a humbling game," Zook said. "If you relax for a second, you're in trouble. The good part now is that we have guys who have been around and know what they're doing, and we have coaches who want to be here.
"The game of football is played up front. To be successful, you have to be strong in the offensive and defensive line."
Brent, with obvious pro potential, calls last season's experience "priceless." Said the Bloomington product: "I got hurt early in camp, and I wasn't fully healed until the Indiana game (Sept. 24). That put me behind in the depth chart. But I got to play, and the experience means a lot. As for winter conditioning, there is no way a high school player can reach the intensity that we have here.
"This is very competitive. For anyone to get on the field, he has to step up. We want to be the No. 1 defensive line in the country. We were 12th in sacks last year. We want to be No. 1."
Those are not hallucinations on April Fools' Day. Sims is building what he hopes will become the deepest, most physical corps of line defenders in UI annals. Take it from offensive line coach Eric Wolford: "We work against those guys every day. There is no better defensive line in the Big Ten."
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.