UI senior a blur on track

UI senior a blur on track

CHAMPAIGN – Back when they were University of Illinois football teammates, George McDonald-Ashford left Simeon Rice in his wake on the UI Armory track.

"Me and Simeon were pretty good friends, so once I came and raced against him just to give him a hard time," McDonald-Ashford said.

These days, however, McDonald-Ashford would love nothing better than to follow in Rice's footsteps. All the way to the NFL.

As current Arizona Cardinals linebacker Rice did in 1996, McDonald-Ashford is spending his final semester on campus putting in some quality training time with the Illini track and field team. The goal: To run as fast as possible when NFL scouts stop by Memorial Stadium next month with their stopwatches.

"March 10th is circled on my calendar," said McDonald-Ashford. "Hopefully I'll catch somebody's eye and get a tryout somewhere.

"I'm just trying to get faster. Hopefully this will give me a better chance of catching on with an NFL team."

If his school record-setting run last month is any indication, McDonald-Ashford is poised to become an entry in some NFL scout's notebook. No Illini has run a faster 60 meters than the Buena Park, Calif., native did during the Illinois Open on Jan. 23. His 6.75-second clocking broke Steve Tyson's 12-year-old mark of 6.77.

"I was kind of surprised," said McDonald-Ashford, who achieved the feat in just his second meet of the season. "I was excited, but it got me kind of nervous because I thought maybe I was peaking too soon."

He knows better now. Last Saturday, the Illini senior ripped off a 6.78 to win the 60 at the Illini Classic.

"I don't see any limit to his potential as far as track is concerned," UI associate head coach Willie Williams said. "I'm just happy he's back with us."

McDonald-Ashford is no stranger to Illini track. As a freshman in 1995, the former Orange County (Calif.) sprint champion placed eighth in the 55 at the Big Ten Indoor Championships.

"I think that was a great indication that he had the ability," Williams said.

But track always has run a distant second to football for McDonald-Ashford's affections. And after that first year on the UI campus, the 6-foot, 185-pounder decided his winters and springs would be better spent training for the sport that was, after all, paying his way through the UI.

"It was never that I didn't want to run track," said McDonald-Ashford, who caught 57 passes for 589 yards during his Illini career. "I just felt my obligation was to the football team, and I needed to focus solely on that because I was trying to become the best football player that I could. And I thought if I spent the extra time running routes and lifting weights that that helped me better my skills at football."

With his college football career now over, though, McDonald-Ashford was free to shift his focus to a future he hopes will include the NFL. In working under the tutelage of sprint coach Williams, he's following a tried-and-true course taken by such former UI football players-turned-pros as Rice and current San Diego Charger Scott Turner.

"He said whenever I wanted to come back, I was more than welcome," McDonald-Ashford said of Williams.

After a three-year absence from the sport, it wouldn't have been surprising if McDonald-Ashford had gotten off to a slow start in his return to track. Instead, he's competing at a level many fulltime sprinters aspire to.

"I didn't see any rust," Williams said. "When I saw him first work out, I said, 'It's still there.' "

Said McDonald-Ashford: "It's like riding a bike; once you learn, you pretty much never forget how to do it."

Not that coach and runner haven't been busy fine-tuning. In particular, Williams has been working with McDonald-Ashford on getting a strong start out of the blocks.

"It will be one of the most important things when he's timed on professional football day," Williams said.

Not to mention how important it will be when McDonald-Ashford lines up this weekend against the Big Ten's best. He'll enter the conference championships at Madison, Wis., with the league's No. 4 time in the 60 this winter.

Grabbing a Big Ten sprint title would score big points for his Illini. And it just might score McDonald-Ashford a few with pro football scouts, too.

"My first love has always been football, so when I was in high school I knew I would rather use my track ability to catch the eye of college coaches," he said. "Like I'm trying to use it to catch the eye of NFL coaches right now."