CHAMPAIGN — Not only did Shilique Calhoun’s tackle of Ryan Lankford end the former Illinois wide receiver’s senior season Oct. 26, it delivered a hit to his pro prospects.
The son of former Miami Dolphins defensive back Paul Lankford has spent his offseason in Champaign and Miami, rehabbing the dislocated left shoulder injury he suffered against Michigan State at Memorial Stadium.
He’s not at the NFL combine. But he’ll likely go through the pro day Illinois will have for NFL scouts March 6 in Champaign. At the time of the injury, Lankford — who had 15 receptions for 308 yards and topped 100 yards twice last fall before the season-ending injury — said it was his goal to have recovered by then. It’s looking like that might come true.
“The shoulder feels great,” Lankford said. “I definitely feel like I could go out there and play today, but I’d be a little out of shape. I’ve got full range of motion back, and I’ve started lifting weights again. I’m getting my running form back, so it feels really good.”
Lankford’s close friendship with former Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is well-documented. He was a groomsman in Scheelhaase’s wedding last July, along with Illinois quarterback Reilly O’Toole. Lankford is eager to see the quarterback competition play itself out at Illinois between O’Toole, Wes Lunt and Aaron Bailey this season.
“Whoever the best quarterback is will step up,” Lankford said. “You’ve got three guys and a freshman (in Chayce Crouch) that really have a chance to compete. Guys come and go. They asked the same question when Juice (Williams) was here about ‘Who’s going to be the next guy?’ Someone else is going to write their legacy now.”
Each quarterback Illinois has brings different attributes and tangibles to the field. With Lunt, it’s his arm and pocket presence. For Bailey, it’s his dual-threat capabilities. O’Toole is the veteran, about to enter his third season of spring ball at Illinois. Or three more than Lunt — who took part in spring practices last year at Oklahoma State — and Bailey have gone through. Crouch has the raw potential, like any true freshman.
“Wes Lunt is smart,” Lankford said. “He has an unbelievable arm. I remember throwing with him (last) summer and slowing my fades down a bit, and he was still overthrowing me easy. He’s a really good quarterback and brings a little experience to the table, which also helps.”
Crouch said the opportunity to play in offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s system was a big reason he chose Illinois. And to also pick up on lessons imparted by O’Toole.
“He’s been through everything in this program, which is a big thing,” Crouch said. “I’m just really looking forward to playing in a big program like this, and once we get this thing turned around, it’s going to be something special. I just have a good feeling about it.”
Douglas up in the air
Illinois updated its spring roster this week. One notable name was absent. Defensive tackle Bryce Douglas is no longer listed. It’s uncertain if the Plainfield Central product will remain at Illinois or transfer to another school.
“I want whatever is best for Bryce,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said, declining to comment whether Douglas requested a release from his scholarship.
Douglas — the son of former Illinois basketball standout Bruce Douglas — redshirted this past season and did not play in any game, missing most of the season with a neck injury.
“Right now there’s just not much to say,” Bruce Douglas said. “I told Bryce a while back to kind of let the sports information people at Illinois know when he makes a decision that he’ll definitely make a statement to everybody.”
Bruce Douglas said his son — who did not return a call from The News-Gazette — still is enrolled at Illinois this semester and is taking classes.
Plainfield Central coach John Jackson said he talked to Bryce Douglas in December shortly after the Illini ended their season but has not spoken with him recently.
“He seemed pretty happy there,” Jackson said. “My understanding is, because he talked to my athletic director recently, is it seems to be an amicable thing.”
Jackson said he was unaware of Douglas having any neck-related injuries at Plainfield Central.
“I knew he had started getting migraines (at Illinois), and one of the coaches contacted me and asked about it, but I thought, ‘Everybody has a headache now and then,’ ” Jackson said. “He never had any issues here as far as I knew. You’ve got to keep in mind, too, that he’s a pretty big man playing with boys at the high school level, and there were not a lot of guys comparable to him. I’m sure he was fine as far as his abilities at Illinois, but the jarring and hitting is just a little more pronounced.”
Other than the departures of quarterbacks Chase Haslett and Sean Hussey, moves Beckman announced a week before Christmas, Douglas is the only other significant name from last season’s team not on the roster.
A noteworthy position change involves former offensive lineman Dallas Hinkhouse. The junior college offensive lineman recruit in the Class of 2013 is listed as a tight end and has traded in his No. 72 jersey for a No. 89 jersey.
Dami Ayoola is on the roster, and the running back, who previously wore No. 22 before he was dismissed after the 2013 season opener for a violation of team rules, now has 32. Other number changes include wide receivers Martize Barr (from 7 to 9) and Jeremy Whitlow (from 18 to 80). Running back Devin Church, who wore 21 and 32 last season, now is listed at No. 23, and running back LaKeith Walls has switched from 28 to 22.
Early enrollees in the Class of 2014 also have their numbers listed. Quarterback Crouch has 7, while wide receiver Geronimo Allison will wear 8, and fellow wideout Mike Dudek will sport 18. Offensive lineman Peter Cvijanovic will wear Corey Lewis’ old number, 70, defensive end Paul James will keep the No. 6 he had last season for Illinois before academic issues surfaced, and junior college defensive tackle Joe Fotu is assigned No. 98.
Garoppolo on display in Indy
Kain Colter is the only Big Ten quarterback at the NFL combine, but the former Northwestern signal-caller will try to make an impression at wide receiver.
The best possible NFL quarterback prospect from the Midwest in this year’s draft didn’t play at the FBS level last season. Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo isn’t worried about the FCS distinction. It doesn’t seem like NFL teams are, either.
NFLDraftScout.com has the former Rolling Meadows product listed as the fifth-best quarterback in the draft class and projects he’ll get drafted in the second round.
Garoppolo — who threw for 5,050 yards, 53 touchdowns and nine interceptions while completing 66 percent of his passes last fall for the Panthers — said he isn’t paying attention to any mock drafts.
“My agents don’t tell me anything about them,” Garoppolo said. “In my mind, it’s a distraction, so I try not to think about it or read about it. I’ve gotten to talk to a bunch of teams, basically every team in the NFL, and all their coaches and scouts. We’ll see what happens.”
Garoppolo won the Walter Payton Award two months ago. His life has changed dramatically since the best FCS football player in 2013 accepted the honor at a ceremony in Philadelphia.
“It’s been very busy, that’s for sure,” Garoppolo said. “I took the semester off of school. I knew I was going to be traveling a lot. I went to four different cities in January. I’ve been able to experience a lot of new places.”
And a lot of flights. That particular form of travel may not seem like much to most college football players who will get drafted. But Garoppolo can count the number of planes he boarded during his college career on one hand. The Panthers traveled to most of their road games via bus.
“Without a doubt, it’s different,” he said with a laugh. “I love flying, though, so it’s been fun.”
Garoppolo played in two all-star games in January, earning offensive MVP honors at the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla., before he was a last-minute replacement for Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. The Arlington Heights native has called Los Angeles home since he left EIU.
His agent, Don Yee of Yee & Dubin, LLC, is based in Los Angeles. Yee counts New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton among his clients. Impressive company for Garoppolo, who did not receive an FBS offer coming out of Rolling Meadows.
“During the season a lot of agents were trying to get my attention, but my parents dealt with most of it,” Garoppolo said. “While they were doing all that during the season, they narrowed it down to eight or nine guys for me. After the season ended, I found two agencies I liked and picked the one I really liked.”
Garoppolo trains from about 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. each day he’s in Los Angeles. Doesn’t leave much time to get around the entertainment capital of the world. That’s all right with Garoppolo.
“There’s really not too much time to do sight-seeing,” he said. “By the time I get home, I’m so tired that I just want to relax. The first day I got here, I went to a beach and took a picture to let my parents know the weather was a lot nicer here than it was in Illinois, though.”
Garoppolo might make history in mid-May if he gets drafted in the second round. EIU has never had a player drafted that high, and of the three quarterbacks the Panthers have had drafted — Jeff Christensen in 1983 by the Cincinnati Bengals, Roger Haberer in 1966 by the Chicago Bears and Bill Glenn in 1944 by the Bears — none were picked before the fifth round. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, the most successful former Panther in the NFL, signed a free agent contract with the Cowboys in 2003.
“I’m trying to represent Eastern well and put Eastern back on the map,” Garoppolo said. “That’s the goal right now. Since I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a professional football player. I’m living the dream right now. Hopefully my play will make one of the NFL teams take a chance on me.”
Look for the union label
The attempt to unionize college athletes has a strong Big Ten flavor. Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter was the first to speak at a hearing in front of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago. Colter described college athletics as “a job,” pointing out the endless hours devoted to their chosen sport. The NCAA argues against the idea of athletics being a job. If the NLRB agrees with the athletes, it could change the way colleges conduct their athletic business. College sports might be on the brink of drastic changes, which could have a long-term impact on the health of the games we love to watch. Fans should keep their eyes on the case. College ADs and coaches should, too.
At times during the past decade, you would need a conversion van to drive all the Illinois pro prospects to the NFL combine in Indianapolis. This year, you would only need a moped. Jonathan Brown is the lone Illini invited to participate in the annual talent show. It’s a reminder of how difficult recruiting became during the later years of the Ron Zook era. Don’t hold the current staff responsible for the dip in NFL-worthy talent. If the numbers stay low in the coming years, the blame shifts to the coaches in charge now. Bottom line, college coaches want the NFL calling. It means you have talent on hand. And that increases your chances to win at a high level.
Hurry up. Again.
Has there ever been a dumber idea than the proposal to limit how quickly college offenses can operate? No surprise, the coaches behind the push are defensive-minded. Alabama’s Nick Saban would ban the forward pass if he thought he could get away with it. It is interesting that offensive gurus weren’t included in the early talks. The guys pushing for the changes seemed to try to sneak it past any protests, which they knew would come in waves. The last thing college football needs is to cut scoring and offense. Good that the people in charge of the rules realized safety wasn’t an issue. It was all about gaining an advantage for the defense.