Springfield's Turner glad to stay in neighborhood
SPRINGFIELD — The second-floor college counseling office at Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin High School has college posters attached.
Along the walls. Below the salmon-covered cabinets. On the countertops.
All promotional ones. All touting the advantages of going to schools like Vanderbilt. Or Wisconsin. Or Kansas.
At first glance, and after a more intense review of the room, no poster for Illinois is spotted.
Then Malik Turner walks into the room.
Here is the promotional poster for Illinois.
Even if the wide receiver is not wearing any Illinois apparel on this cold, cloudy January morning. He can’t.
They wear uniforms at his high school.
The standard-issue long-sleeve white polo shirt with the SH-G logo stitched in black on his left chest, the light khaki pants and black belt are the attire for Turner on this day. Along with a few hundred of his classmates at the coed Catholic high school off West Washington Street.
The bright yellow shoelaces adorned to his dark gray Nikes, which have a strip of light blue at the toe, are about the only distinctive flair Turner sports this morning.
He’s unassuming. Doesn’t command attention. When he unfolds his 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame out of the wooden chair inside the college counseling center at SH-G, he walks to his locker a few feet away. Grabs a brown paper sack that has his lunch. Classmates walk by and say hello, like he’s any other student. Which he is.
Until the Illinois recruit steps on a football field.
“Malik Turner is going to be a player at Illinois,” said Dan Rourke, the veteran Chatham Glenwood coach who witnessed Turner putting up impressive numbers against his team twice last fall. “We’re going to be watching him on TV.”
Turner will make the oral commitment he gave Illinois more than eight months ago official early this morning in signing a letter of intent with Tim Beckman’s program. He’s old enough to vote now, turning 18 six days ago, but politics aren’t on the forefront of Turner’s mind. He has lived in Springfield most of his life, and he can spot the dome of the state Capitol during his 10-minute walk to the SH-G campus from his nearby house.
Next year at this time, he’ll have completed his first season of college football. But today, all he is concerned with is getting his signature right.
“I’m anxious,” he said. “I’ve been waiting on it. Just to put it on paper and to say I’m finally done with my decision will be good to get off my chest.”
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Turner has dealt with setbacks before he arrived at this point.
Left ankle injuries robbed him of vital playing time during his sophomore and junior seasons.
Caused him to miss large chunks of two high school seasons.
Left him without much recruiting buzz heading into his senior season.
“I had high hopes for my junior year, and I feel like they got shattered,” Turner said. “I was trying to get some recognition from colleges. Going through it made me stronger, but at the time when it first happened I didn’t really think that way.”
Margaret Paulin believed from an early age her middle child had special characteristics about him. The single mom of three first saw it when Turner played youth soccer.
“He just was a natural athlete with whatever he did,” Paulin said. “Everything he played, he just excelled at.”
But he didn’t blossom into his role of top receiver for the state’s top Class 5A program until 2013. Turner nabbed 69 receptions for 1,377 yards and 23 touchdowns this past fall. The Cyclones rolled to a 14-0 record and the 5A state title. Turner was a big reason.
“He was really good,” said Derek Leonard, the Rochester coach and son of legendary SH-G coach Ken Leonard who saw Turner catch 10 passes for 166 yards against his Rockets last season. “We were lucky he was hurt the last two years. That was a huge plus that we didn’t have to guard him. This year we put three people on him.”
Turner started playing football when he was 6 years old. As a lineman.
“I was always over the weight limit,” Turner said.
Then he shifted to running back. Played there his freshman season.
“We had some good running backs here, so Coach Leonard moved me to receiver,” Turner said. “I just went with it because I know he’s seen how everybody’s turned out. I respected his decision and went with it.”
Good idea. Turner managed 16 catches for 346 yards in an injury-shortened season his junior year, with most of his production in the postseason. But those numbers didn’t exactly send college coaches flocking to Turner.
“Injuries can hurt guys who aren’t in a major metropolitan area,” said Tom Lemming, a national recruiting expert with CBS Sports Network. “A lot of schools just don’t go to Springfield. The Midwest schools will, but not the rest of the nation. You’re not going to see Alabama, USC or Texas up in Springfield. It kept some of the people that might have eventually been interested in him away.”
Lemming, who has covered recruiting for more than 35 years and logged hundreds of thousands of miles in his career evaluating prospects, has Turner among his top 10 underrated recruits — in the country — for the Class of 2014.
“He’s big and physical with great hands and good speed,” Lemming said. “He has better speed than most people think. He can separate from a defender, and he’s tough to tackle. I think he’s an elite ballplayer who is a major catch for Illinois. I’m glad to see he stuck with them after a couple other schools started to show interest in him later on in the process.”
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Turner received extra attention once he started putting up highlight-reel plays and eye-popping statistics his senior year. But he remained solid with Illinois.
“After I committed to Illinois, I’d get calls or Coach Leonard would get calls from other schools,” Turner said, “but I’d just tell them I want to stay with Illinois.”
Staying close to home is important to Turner. It’s a 90-minute drive up Interstate 72 from Springfield to Memorial Stadium. Quick enough for Paulin to whip up some of her son’s favorite meals and bring them by.
“I have spoiled him a bit,” Paulin said with a laugh, “so he loves home-cooked meals.”
Some high school coaches tend to tire of overbearing high school sports parents. Paulin didn’t fit that description.
“She’s a great mother (and) just a fantastic lady,” Ken Leonard said. “She raised him the right way. He’s a fine young man.”
Turner was born in Stamford, Conn., but moved to Springfield when he was 1. He does not have much contact with his father, who still resides in Connecticut.
“My mom is really all I got, along with my older brother and my younger sister,” Turner said. “I wanted to be close to home (for college) where I had family and a lot of support.”
Paulin, who works for the Department of Children and Family Services in Springfield, realizes it wasn’t always easy for Turner growing up without a father.
“I was a foster kid, so I understand how hard it can be to not have either sets of parents,” Paulin said. “I’m playing the dad and mom role. It was tough at times.”
It wasn’t always clear if Turner would go to the high school he calls home now. He attended Grant Middle School in Springfield, helping the school win a state basketball title in eighth grade with his good friend Larry Austin Jr. Turner nearly followed Austin, a Tennessee men’s basketball signee, to Springfield Lanphier. Mom wanted a challenge for her son. Enter SH-G.
“There comes a time in his life where you had to sit down and choose about his future versus following his friends,” Paulin said. “If he had struggled academically in middle school, he would have had a hard time at SH-G. He likes a challenge, so academically they challenge you and push you. The football program speaks for itself. Coach Leonard is a great mentor and father-like figure to him. He always stood behind him even with the injuries.”
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So did Illinois. Former Illinois wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales made the first contact with Turner at a summer camp in Edwardsville in 2012.
Current Illinois wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy kept recruiting Turner once Gonzales left, with Beckman staying in touch.
Both coaches had characteristics that appealed to Turner.
“Coach Bellamy is real relaxed, and I’m a real relaxed guy,” Turner said. “He’s funny at times, but I like the fact that he’s chill. Coach Beckman is a real family guy. I feel that he really, really does care about you. I like that. I can trust him.”
The feeling is mutual with Paulin, who warmed to Beckman and his wife, Kim, upon first meeting them.
“I went over to Champaign for a 7-on-7, and Coach Beckman introduced me to his wife,” she said. “His wife is nice and sweet. There’s nothing phony about her. They were all just nice, regular people. ... I feel like he’s in good hands.”
How dependable Turner’s hands are, how quickly he can learn offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s pass-happy offense, how precise his route running and how his body holds up against Division I defenses will all determine how productive a career Turner will have at Illinois.
All those elements will play out in the future. Perhaps next season.
Illinois does not have a returning starter at wide receiver.
“For me, with them throwing the ball as much as they did last year, that makes me very happy,” Turner said. “I’ll need to raise my play. I don’t want to embarrass myself out there. I’m not fine with my weight, but I’m sure I’ll gain weight in college. I’m looking forward to getting faster, stronger and learning my position better.”
But before he heads to Champaign, the two-sport athlete — he’s a starting forward on the Cyclones’ basketball team — understands where he’s headed is a direct correlation of where he’s come from.
“I feel like it’s prepared me for college with the work here at SH-G,” Turner said. “It really challenges me to become a better student, and all the habits I got here are going to help me in college.”
He knows once he arrives in C-U, his biggest fan will stay updated on his progress. It’s why signing today to get a full scholarship at Illinois carries a bit more significance with Turner.
“I’ve always thought about how I would help her because she’s been paying for everything all my life,” he said. “This is how I can give back to her and give thanks to her for all she’s done for me. That was important for me.”
Bob Asmussen contributed to this report.
Some already have signed letters of intent. More will do so Wednesday. Here’s a full list of Illinois recruits Tim Beckman will sign with the Class of 2014:
Name POS. Ht. Wt.
Nick Allegretti OL 6-4 305 Coming to Illinois from: Lincoln-Way East
Geronimo Allison WR 6-3 185 Coming to Illinois from: Iowa Western CC
Chayce Crouch QB 6-4 220 Coming to Illinois from: Newark (Ohio) Cath.
Peter Cvijanovic OL 6-4 280 Coming to Illinois from: East Coast Prep (Mass.)
Matt Domer RB 6-0 188 Coming to Illinois from: Chicago Mount Carmel
Mike Dudek WR 5-11 180 Coming to Illinois from: Neuqua Valley
Joe Fotu DL 6-3 275 Coming to Illinois from: Laney College (Calif.)
Jeff George Jr. QB 6-3 190
Coming to Illinois from: Indy Warren Central
Julian Hylton DB 6-1 190 Coming to Illinois from: Lincoln-Way North
Chris James DB 5-10 185
Coming to Illinois from: W. Orange-Stark (Texas)
Paul James DE 6-3 240 Coming to Illinois from: Miami Norland
Henry McGrew LB 6-3 237 Coming to Illinois from: Blue Valley (Kan.)
Tito Odenigbo DL 6-3 241 Coming to Illinois from: Centerville (Ohio)
Carroll Phillips DE 6-4 245 Coming to Illinois from: Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) CC
Austin Roberts LB 6-3 226 Coming to Illinois from: Rice Lake (Wis.)
Tyree Stone-Davis DB 6-3 200 Coming to Illinois from: Pierce College (Calif.)
Tyrin Stone-Davis WR 6-3 195 Coming to Illinois from: Pierce College (Calif.)
Malik Turner WR 6-3 205 Coming to Illinois from: Springfield SH-G
Jihad Ward DL 6-7 285 Coming to Illinois from: Globe Tech (N.Y.)
Tre Watson LB 6-2 230 Coming to Illinois from: Tampa Catholic