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CHAMPAIGN — He wears a number, 88, usually associated with receivers or tight ends.
Not defensive linemen.
Illinois freshman Keith Randolph had no interest in the 90s, the digits favored by most of his new linemates.
With the UI’s in-state football recruiting faltering year-after-year — nor do neighbors Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa help — innovation is mandatory.
“It’s actually a funny story,” Randolph said. “I don’t think 90 numbers are cool. Girls don’t know the 90s. Girls know the receivers and quarterbacks and that’s about it.”
At Belleville West, they tried to give him No. 99. Randolph didn’t bite.
“I was like ‘No. What number do you have in the 80s?’ They said, ‘88’ and I said, ‘I’ll take it.’
“It looks cool. Everybody makes fun of me about it. I like being different.”
Now, he embraces it. Randolph has a necklace at home with “88.”
It was more than just the look that drew Randolph to his new number. As a high school basketball standout at Belleville West, Randolph wore No. 22.
Four times 22? Well, 88.
Illinois defensive line coach Austin Clark doesn’t care what number Randolph wears.
“It’s something he wants to do,” Clark said.
The Illini defensive staff has high hopes for Randolph, who is new to the sport.
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He didn’t start playing football until his junior season in high school. He was good enough as a senior to earn News-Gazette All-State honors after recording seven sacks and receiving 30 college offers.
“I loved the recruiting process,” Randolph said. “I loved being able to visit schools. My journey here to Champaign, it just felt like home from Day One when they first started recruiting me. They made me feel important.”
Randolph always figured he would play college basketball. Along with Ohio State freshman E.J. Liddell, Randolph helped the Maroons win back-to-back Class 4A state titles.
The Illinois football offer changed Randolph’s plan.
“I was like, ‘I think I might have to just play football,’” Randolph said.
Football ends in November. Is Randolph willing to help Brad Underwood’s team?
“I’ve thought about playing both sports,” Randolph said. “Give Coach Underwood a quick little text, ‘I know you guys need me over there.’ I doubt my mom will like that. She wants me to focus on one sport and school.”
Which freshman football player is the best basketball player?
“I think you know that,” Randolph said.
How about the best on the team?
“I think you know that,” Randolph said.
Randolph stays in touch with Liddell.
“We do Group FaceTime all the time and we’re always talking back to each other,” Randolph said. “He asked me, ‘How is Illinois?’ I’m like, ‘It could be 10 times better if you were here.’ That’s my guy. I love him.”
Randolph is one of three freshman defensive linemen joining the Illini this season along with Seth Coleman (No. 49) and Moses Okpala (No. 69).
Clark, in his second season, likes what he sees so far.
“They’re giving great effort,” Clark said. “Each one brings a different skill set to the table. Seth, his pure speed. Keith, his athleticism at his size. And Moses, just pure size. He’s a large, large man. They’re all great kids.”
The 6-foot-7 Okpala is another on a growing Illini list of St. Louis area recruits. He played at Ladue Horton Watkins.
Of course, this is the Big Ten, a large leap from high school.
“It’s moving at a very different speed,” Okpala said. “Everything is a pace higher. Everyone is better.”
Okpala got a taste during summer workouts.
“It’s like, ‘Oh, my. I’m really in college now,’” Okpala said.
Okpala wants to learn as much as possible his rookie year.
“Perform at my best and everything will take care of itself,” Okpala said.
It helps to have others in the same position.
“Whenever we go to meetings, we’re in the same boat,” Okpala said.
Randolph and Coleman are destined to play end. At 260 pounds and climbing, Okpala might grow into tackle.
“Wherever (Clark) puts me, I’ll be fine,” Okpala said.
Coleman realized he wasn’t in high school anymore during his first workout with strength coach Lou Hernandez.
“It was crazy,” Coleman said. “It was like boot camp almost.”
Because he is so new to the sport, Randolph is playing catch up.
“The people I was recruited with, Moses and Seth, they’re very good at football,” Randolph said. “They know what they’re doing. I’m kind of out there, lost. It’s just a big adjustment.”
Randolph has a nickname for the freshman linemen.
“We’re like the Three Stooges,” he said. “We’re always messing up. Coach gets mad at us. He knows we’re all new to football and we all have lot to learn.”
Randolph is “kind of a blank canvas” when it comes to football.
“They’re telling me things I’ve never even heard of,” he said. “In high school, they’d tell me, ‘Keith, go get the quarterback.’ Or, ‘Hit the person with the ball.’”
Now, not so easy.
“It’s pretty overwhelming. I can’t lie,” Randolph said. “High school is a whole different vibe than college.”