UI-Wisconsin preview: Rip-roarin' rookies
MADISON, Wis. – Each day, he walks by the reminder. The year screams at him: 1927.
That's the last time Illinois won a football national championship, a fact that the newcomer learned quickly.
And just as quickly, Corey Liuget made a vow. Along with his freshman teammates. They want to add a new year to the championship list. Before they leave Illinois.
"We haven't had a national title since 1927," Liuget said. "We're going to bring one back within three years."
"All the freshmen, we think we can do it in a couple of years," tailback Jason Ford said.
The Illinois freshmen are confident. And productive. Fourteen of them have played so far this season for a team that went to the Rose Bowl. More from the 27-player class will contribute in the future, both near and distant.
They have helped as runners, receivers, blockers, tacklers, defenders and kickers. They have come from far away (Liuget starred at Miami Hialeah High School) and from just around the corner (Mikel Leshoure starred at Centennial). Some were big-time recruits (Liuget, Ford, Cordale Scott) and others were walk-ons (Zach Becker).
"When we first signed, Coach (Ron) Zook said everybody would get an opportunity to play," freshman cornerback Tavon Wilson said. "Everybody came in and worked hard toward playing."
Only Minnesota has used more true freshmen in the Big Ten this season. The Gophers were coming off a 1-11 season and needed all the help they could get.
At Illinois, breaking into the lineup early means one thing: you earned your time. The need is there only if the player can outperform the guy ahead of him, which has happened.
"If a guy is able to help us, we're going to play him," Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said.
They have developed at different rates. Receiver Fred Sykes, who enrolled at Illinois in January, started the opener against Missouri. Liuget was in the lineup for the third game. Jeff Allen took over at right tackle for the Big Ten opener against Penn State.
Some took more time to get involved. Offensive tackle Corey Lewis and kicker Derek Dimke played for the first time against Indiana. Ford had 15 rushing yards in the first six games and 172 against the Hoosiers in Game Seven.
Liuget expected to be on the field as a freshman. It was the amount of time that was unclear.
"They told me, 'There's a spot for you to come in and play right away, but you're going to have to earn it. It's not going to be given,' " Liuget said.
When did he know he could handle it?
"As soon as I touched down in Champaign," Liuget said. "I knew that I was ready."
Proving to his teammates that he was ready took more time. Camp Rantoul was hard on the freshman, who was pushed by teammates and the guys on the offensive line.
"It was very rough," Liuget said. "Those were the worst two and a half weeks I've ever been through. But I enjoyed it. It was a heckuva lot of fun out there."
Allen, Leshoure and Sykes had the advantage of participating in spring practice.
"I didn't realize I was going to start so early," Allen said. "I wasn't planning on starting my freshman year, but I was planning on getting playing time."
So was A.J. Jenkins. The receiver from Jacksonville, Fla., went to Camp Rantoul determined to earn playing time.
"Coach Locksley and Coach (Kurt) Beathard told me during the recruiting process that if I put the work in, I was going to play early," Jenkins said.
Jenkins has been a factor as both a receiver and a returner. He had two touchdown catches against Minnesota and ran a kick back against Indiana for a third score.
The older players have made the transition easier for Jenkins and his classmates. Arrelious Benn, Chris James, Will Judson and the rest have helped him line up and run the correct routes.
Illinois senior linebacker Brit Miller played as a true freshmen, too. Of course, the team wasn't coming off a Rose Bowl appearance. Or any bowl, for that matter.
In Zook's first year, Miller played in all 11 games. He started the final four games of the season and finished seventh on the team in tackles.
"We played on a team that struggled. I was a guy who had to come in for necessity and a look in the future," Miller said. "An opportunity was there for me because of those reasons. Now, these guys are making their opportunities because they're talented. I may have lucked into one."
For Miller, playing early for a struggling team meant success later for a winner.
"One of the things that we were missing as a class was a group of guys above us that had experienced what Coach Zook's been," Miller said. "Not that they weren't talented or able, but they hadn't been through the battles with Coach Zook and learned how to respond to him, his coaching style. We can provide these guys with a lot of shortcuts."
Miller wasn't the only freshman in Zook's first season. Eric Block, Will Davis, Kyle Hudson, Greg McClendon, Derrick McPhearson, Rashard Mendenhall, Mike Nabolotny, Rodney Pittman and Sirod Williams all got on the field.
In 2006, Zook's 2-10 team used 15 first-year freshmen, including starting quarterback Juice Williams. The junior understands what the young guys are going through this season.
"It's extremely difficult," Williams said. "You just got off the prom court and now you're out here playing college football in front of thousands of fans. It's a lot of pressure for those guys. You don't know what to expect."
Williams have been impressed with the current freshmen.
"They've shown tremendous poise out there," Williams said. "They do a great job executing the game plan offensively and defensively. You can't really tell these guys are freshmen out here. They're doing all the things us older guys are doing. And some of them are doing better than us. That's very beneficial to this team."
Every Big Ten school has used at least two true freshmen during the 2008 season. The list:
SCHOOL FRESHMEN PLAYING
1. Minnesota 15
2. Illinois 14
3. Ohio State 11
4. Wisconsin 10
5. Michigan 9
6. Iowa 7
6. Michigan State 7
8. Penn State 5
8. Purdue 5
10. Indiana 3
11. Northwestern 2