Daniels: Illini excited to be in the game

Daniels: Illini excited to be in the game

CHAMPAIGN — Evan Wilson did not wait in line at midnight this year.

The Illinois senior tight end has, however, stood outside stores before in anticipation of buying his favorite video game — EA Sports’ NCAA Football — the first possible moment he can.

This year’s version, NCAA Football 14, features former Michigan standout Denard Robinson on the cover. Wilson, like thousands of other college football players across the country, already has his copy. Bought it the first day he could.

And he likes what he has seen so far.

“With this year’s game, running the ball is a lot easier,” he said. “You can kind of make those cuts in the hole almost like you’re actually running. You can see it and then hit it fast. It’s a little bit more fluid and more realistic.”

It appears this is the last year, though, for the NCAA Football franchise. Earlier this week, the NCAA decided not to renew its contract with EA Sports. The decision came about because of an ongoing lawsuit initially filed by former UCLA men’s basketball standout Ed O’Bannon about the NCAA using players’ likenesses for free.

“I will be hurt,” Wilson said. “I’ve got to go out on top, I guess.”

Wilson is a fan of the popular video game and has played it since NCAA Football 05 was released in 2004.

“I get it every year, and I try to master it,” Wilson said. “At times, it doesn’t want to be nice to me.”

Nor is he nice to, say, his XBox controller. Wilson and Illinois wide receiver Miles Osei used to engage in competitive games when the two roomed together.

“There’s some pretty big rivalries when it comes to playing the game,” Wilson said. “We played the game almost every day. It got pretty intense and pretty ugly. There were holes in the walls that had to be fixed.”

***
Backup quarterback Reilly O’Toole hasn’t picked up this year’s game yet, but he has played it for the better part of the last decade. The game can’t feature the players’ actual names, but it does have the correct heights and weights, and generally the right uniform numbers most of the time (Illinois wide receiver Spencer Harris, listed as No. 90 in this year’s game, wears No. 80 in real life, is a rare exception). It doesn’t list the players’ actual hometowns, which can bring about some good-natured ribbing.

In the case of O’Toole, the 2010 News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year who prepped at Wheaton Warrenville South, this year’s game has his hometown listed as East St. Louis.

“That was funny to see,” O’Toole said.

Wilson said some of the equipment the game puts on the players does not match up with what they really wear. For instance, this year’s game has Wilson with tape on his fingers. Another Illinois tight end, Jon Davis, is sporting a large neck roll you’d likely see on a defensive lineman or linebacker.

“I would never wear finger tape,” Wilson said. “I got to call in and tell them about that one.”

The game tries to incorporate the players’ physical characteristics and skills.

Needless to say, there are always a few unhappy players every year who believe their ratings — whether it’s speed, strength or a variety of other skills the game uses — should increase. The ratings are on a scale up to 100.

The higher the rating, the better the player.

“When you first get the game, you want to see what your ratings are,” O’Toole said. “Mine actually have been pretty generous. I haven’t had any complaints. Last year I was really fast, which was awesome, because I’m not the fastest dude.”

Wilson prefers playing the game online against unknown opponents. Much like other college players the first time they play the game, Wilson played as Illinois and targeted himself frequently.

“I had about 15 catches and over 200 yards,” Wilson said with a laugh. “I had a great day. It was shocking getting the game that day and seeing yourself on it. That was a pretty cool feeling.”

Playing NCAA Football 14 isn’t the only video game the Illini like to play. The team held an NBA 2K13 tournament at the beginning of the month.

Osei emerged victorious. Aside from Wilson, Osei and Davis, O’Toole said offensive lineman Chris Boles and defensive end Tim Kynard are big gamers, too.

“Chris Boles calls himself the GOAT, which is Greatest of All Time,” O’Toole said with a laugh. “In the 2K tournament, it was a double-elimination tournament, and he lost both games. Everybody was going nuts because he talks the most trash.”

And Nathan Scheelhaase isn’t bad either, O’Toole said of the Illinois starting quarterback and close friend.

“Nate doesn’t really play much,” O’Toole said, “but when he does, he’s pretty good.”

Wilson, like O’Toole and his other veteran teammates, have become accustomed to seeing themselves on a video game that was the No. 1 selling video game for the month of July last year.

It doesn’t get old.

“It’s kind of amazing that you got to this point where someone else can play you,” Wilson said. “It’s almost an accomplishment in itself.”

***
The high school football season in Illinois starts Aug. 30.

Don’t expect Illinois assistant coaches at any Week 1 games, though.

Or at any other high school games throughout the country.

The coaches can’t take to the road and check out potential recruits until Sept. 1.

The evaluation period starts that day and lasts until Nov. 30. The Illinois staff, like every other Division I program, is limited to 42 evaluations, per NCAA rules.

“It’ll be a fair mix of evaluating certain guys for 2014,” Illinois recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh said, “along with seeing your committed guys and then evaluating junior college kids on those bye weeks.”

Having two bye weeks during the season should benefit recruiting, Golesh said, especially when it comes to junior colleges.

The Illini signed five juco players in the Class of 2013 and could add one or two more to the Class of 2014, which has nine high school players committed so far.

“You can go see some Saturday junior college games, and you can also be out Friday, go see two games and not be worried about what time you get back,” he said. “If you have seven coaches out for three days, that’s 21 days. When you have two bye weeks, you multiply that by two, that’s 42 days and you’re out of allotted days. You’ve got to be smart.”

***
Jordan Lynch led Northern Illinois to the Orange Bowl last season.

Yet the former Chicago Mount Carmel product can walk around campus without much of a buzz. He can stroll downtown DeKalb without a swarm of autograph seekers in tow.

The fifth-year senior doesn’t live inside a bubble, with every move he makes scrutinized.

He hasn’t set Twitter on fire this offseason (hello, Johnny Manziel).

“I think it’s pretty low-key around NIU,” Lynch said. “I like to get treated like everyone else. Just because I play football doesn’t mean I want to get treated better than anybody.”

But he’s similar to Manziel in one sense. The starting quarterback for the Huskies has a Heisman Trophy campaign attached to his name.

His website, www.jordanlynchfor6.com, oozes with notable accomplishments Lynch achieved in 2012.

The school put together a Heisman campaign for Lynch late during the 2012 season.

He finished seventh in the voting last year. It was the highest finish for college football’s most coveted trophy by a college football player in the state of Illinois since Northwestern’s Damien Anderson placed fifth in 2000.

Maybe one starting in the summer can springboard Lynch’s chances. If he’s able to replicate last year’s individual numbers and help the Huskies post double-digit win totals like they did last year.

“It’s a pretty cool deal for Northern to do it,” Lynch said. “I know they did one for Michael Turner when he was here. It shows you the character the media relations people have. They just really care. Starting it early in the summer is a good deal for me.”

***
A big night on the town for Lynch doesn’t consist of much.  

“My hobby is working out,” the 6-foot, 216-pound dual-threat quarterback said. “Besides that, I like to watch some movies and play Madden on XBox.”

His favorite team to play with makes sense for a quarterback who threw for 3,138 yards and rushed for 1,815 yards last year.

The San Francisco 49ers. With Colin Kaepernick running the show.

Lynch served as Chandler Harnish’s backup his first two seasons in DeKalb after redshirting the 2009 season.

Didn’t play much. Didn’t matter in 2012.

The rushing yards Lynch accumulated last season set the NCAA record for most rushing yards by a quarterback in a season. And he finished fourth in the country, only 15 yards behind former Wisconsin standout Montee Ball.

“The NFL is definitely a dream for me,” Lynch said. “Any chance of making a team, whether it’s at quarterback or another position, is a goal. I’m a quarterback, so I would like to get a shot at that first, though.”

Which is how he ended up at Northern Illinois. He didn’t have a boatload of offers.

In fact, his only one came from Northern Illinois. Purdue showed scant interest in the two-star recruit but wanted him to come as an athlete, which meant there were no guarantees he’d wind up at quarterback.

“We’ve got a bunch of kids who have chips on their shoulders,” Lynch said of the Huskies. “We all thought we could have went to a bigger place coming out of high school, so you’re really excited when you play teams from the major BCS conferences.”

Northern Illinois has two games at Big Ten foes this season (Iowa on Aug. 31 and Purdue on Sept. 28). Two games for Lynch to show he’s better than the numbers he posted against Florida State in the Orange Bowl (44 rushing yards on 23 carries; 15-of-41 passing for 176 yards).

Who knows if Lynch will get an invitation to New York City for the Heisman ceremonies in early December. Then again, who knew at this point last summer that Lynch would put forth the type of performances he did during a record-setting 2012 season.

But even with the Heisman campaign his school has created for him, don’t expect Lynch to boast about his skills.

“It’s a quarterback-driven offense,” he said. “It’s a really easy offense to learn. Defenses can’t really key in on me or key in on a quarterback because we have so many good playmakers in this offense.”

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