Tate: Wolford reminisces ahead of opener

Tate: Wolford reminisces ahead of opener

When Eric Wolford gazes around Memorial Stadium on Saturday, he’ll carry a stream of happy memories.

During his two seasons as offensive line coach at Illinois — 2007 and 2008 — the fifth-year Youngstown State head coach participated in nine wins and three losses at the venue and was part of the UI’s only Rose Bowl excursion in what is now 30 seasons.

“Those were exciting years,” Wolford said. “My responsibility was getting the offensive line in shape (after the 2-10 disaster in 2006). We moved Xavier Fulton, who had been injured in 2006, from defense to right tackle, and we had an All-American guard in Martin O’Donnell. It was a good group. Early on, we defeated a good Joe Paterno team (Penn State, No. 21) and Wisconsin (No. 5) at home. And we won at Ohio State when the Buckeyes were No. 1.”

Wolford enjoyed good fortune in that Fulton, O’Donnell, Akim Millington, Ryan McDonald and Jon Asamoah started all 13 games up front, helping the Illini lead the Big Ten in rushing (conference games only) for the only time since J.C. Caroline and Mickey Bates starred in 1953 — 60 years ago.

Wolford has produced two wins that stand out above others at Youngstown. His Penguins upset North Dakota State 27-24 in 2011, one of only two losses in 45 games for the repeat FCS champs. And Youngstown opened the 2012 season with a 31-17 upset of Pitt in Steeler Stadium (Heinz Field) before finishing 7-4. The Penguins started 8-1 last season before dropping the last three.

Now Wolford and his Penguins stand between Illinois and a happy debut. The coach responded to questions:

Q: Tell us about your team.
Wolford: We have a new quarterback, Dante Nania, who replaces a four-year starter (Kurt Hess) who rewrote all our passing records. Hess won some big games for us. I’d call this a no-name team, and I like that. We’ll be young in the offensive line.

Q: Do you still work with the offensive linemen?
Wolford: Yes, I can’t help myself. I am involved in all the offensive meetings. I am inclined that way.

Q: Who is responsible for overseeing the chase after Illini QB Wes Lunt?
Wolford: We have a new defensive coordinator in Jamie Bryant. He spent nine years in the SEC and was defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt. He was our special teams coordinator last season.

Q: What is the secret to North Dakota State’s success? The Fargo team is favored again in the Missouri Valley despite losing 17 seniors from a team that upset Kansas State last year.
Wolford: They’ve been very good at redshirting and developing players. It is an oil-rich area, and the program has good facilities and is well-funded. We tied for second (in the Valley) and didn’t get in the playoffs last year. I feel good about our chances this season.

Q: Jim Tressel became a Youngstown icon when he coached four Division I-AA title-winners in the 1990s, going 61-9 (two ties) from 1990 to 1994. What is it like to have Tressel back as president of the university?
Wolford: I love it. I’ve known him since he recruited me in high school (Wolford attended Kansas State). The biggest thing is, he recruits everybody he comes into contact with, either in the community or the state. As for what happened at Ohio State (Tattoogate led to his forced resignation in 2011), I’d just say that Tressel tried to protect his players. He is a loyal guy.

Q: You have former Illini coach Tom Sims as assistant head coach in charge of the defensive line. Why did Ron Zook let Sims go after the 2008 season?
Wolford: Tom does a great job for us. I guess somebody just had to take a bullet at Illinois that year.

Q: How is recruiting going?
Wolford: In Ohio, we have nine Division I schools, excluding us, and all the Big Ten teams are in here. There are no secrets. When I was at Illinois, I was able to get in on guys like Jeff Allen (Chicago), Whitney Mercilus (Akron) and Hugh Thornton (moved to Ohio from Idaho as a senior) before anyone else made an offer. Today, with social media and the Internet, everybody knows what everybody else is doing. There are no secrets.

EDITOR’S NOTE: As for game strategy, I didn’t ask. It’s obvious and will be the same for all 12 Illini games.

From the UI standpoint, it has to do with protecting Lunt, who suffered two disabling injuries in his freshman year at Oklahoma State. If Lunt has time to scan the field and read coverages, he’ll complete passes.

From the opponents’ standpoint, look for them to blitz freely and attempt to break down UI protection, thereby reducing Lunt’s ability to throw accurately. 

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.