THE GOOD FIGHT
With the Rose Bowl within their reach, the upstart Illini put
themselves in a must-win situation
After finishing 3-8 in 1998, Illinois improved to 8-4, became
the first team since 1951 to beat Michigan and Ohio State on the
road in the same season and embarrassed Virginia 63-21 in the
Micronpc.com Bowl. Now comes the hard part: contending for the
Big Ten championship.
Senior defensive end Fred Wakefield, who grew up in Tuscola,
Ill., just 25 miles from campus, understands how expectations
have changed for the Fighting Illini. "If we end up 8-4, no one
will be happy," Wakefield says. "It was nice last year, going to
a bowl when no one [on the team] had ever been before. But you
don't hear too much talk about that anymore. That bowl wasn't a
finish to anything--it's where everything [this season] starts."
Recent history suggests that teams that achieve instant success,
as Illinois did, have a difficult time sustaining it, even into
the next season (chart, opposite). The Illini still won't be a
favorite to go to the Rose Bowl, in which they haven't played
since 1984. While this team came from 20 points behind to win at
Michigan, it also blew a 21-point lead and lost at Indiana.
Nevertheless, Illinois has come a long way under coach Ron
Turner, the younger brother of Washington Redskins coach Norv
Turner. Hired in December 1996 after four seasons as the Chicago
Bears' offensive coordinator, Ron Turner brought a pro look to
an offense that had calcified under his predecessor, Lou Tepper.
The Illini, behind sophomore quarterback Kurt Kittner, scored a
school-record 388 points last season--120 more than they scored
in Turner's first two years combined. Turner's patience, while
his players adapted to his system, paid off.
Take Kittner, who started five games as a freshman in 1998 and
during the last three produced a total of one field goal before
Turner yanked him. "I saw some tape from my freshman year the
other day," Kittner says. "I asked Coach, 'How in the heck did
you let me on the field looking like that?'"
Turner says he saw his team making progress even in his first
year, when Illinois went 0-11. "When we were 0-9 and preparing
to play at [No. 4] Ohio State," he says, "they came in to work
still trying to get better." Turner exudes confidence, and his
players respond to it. For Kittner, who threw 24 touchdowns and
only five interceptions last season, the goal is to improve on
his 54.5 completion percentage. He thinks he needs quicker feet.
"Footwork sets up timing," he says. "I need to get the ball off
quicker. That lets guys get more yards after the catch. I was
getting the right reads, but I was a hair too late."
With Kittner behind a line that has five blockers who started
all 12 games last season, the offense won't be a problem. It
will be the defense that determines if Illinois can make a run
at the Big Ten title. Though it was opportunistic (a plus-13
turnover margin, ranked second in the nation), the defense
allowed 236.8 rushing yards per game in its four losses. "We've
got to go out, look like we're going to blitz and still get in
the gap," says Wakefield, who likes the idea that the Illini
won't sneak up on anyone this season. A Top 25 preseason
ranking, he says, would "put a big target on us. That's how we
Virginia Tech's Backfield
THE JURY'S OUT ON KENDRICK
When the Hokies report for spring practice on Saturday, they
won't have the two tailbacks who combined for 1,764 rushing
yards and 20 touchdowns last season. Starter Shyrone Stith, who
would have been a senior, declared for the NFL draft. Andre
Kendrick, the junior backup who could have started for a lot of
other teams last year, isn't in school. He was placed on
academic suspension after the fall semester because his grade
point average fell below 2.0. Kendrick will attend summer school
in an attempt to regain his academic eligibility. "We plan on
him being here in the fall," assistant athletic director for
football operations John Ballein says. Even with Kendrick, who,
at 5'7", 183 pounds, isn't big enough to carry the load alone,
the Hokies will need help from sophomore Lee Suggs, who rushed
for 136 yards last season, and junior Wayne Ward, who will
return to tailback after a year at fullback.
Then again, with Michael Vick at quarterback, why worry? When
the Virginia Tech training staff held a workout for visiting NFL
scouts in Blacksburg on March 3, Vick was one of the
participants in a series of 12 40-yard dashes. His slowest time,
according to Tech stopwatches: 4.28.
THE FRESHMEN ARE COMING
Alabama coach Mike DuBose hasn't been happy with the play of his
backup offensive and defensive linemen this spring, and that's
not good, because improved depth is one of DuBose's priorities.
However, 13 freshman linemen arrive in August, and while most
coaches believe first-year players can help only at skill
positions, DuBose won an SEC title last season while proving
otherwise. "The only reason a freshman can't play is if he's not
psychologically ready to play in front of 80,000 to 100,000
people," DuBose says. "They're afraid of being wrong." He
believes that he can prepare freshmen to overcome that fear and
make them immediate contributors. "When you redshirt them, you
don't give them a lot of individual attention."
En route to a 10-3 record and an Orange Bowl appearance in
January, the Crimson Tide started freshman defensive end Kenny
King (6'4", 270 pounds), who made 19 1/2 tackles behind the line
of scrimmage, and offensive tackle Dante Ellington (6'5", 335),
who has moved from the right side to the left, replacing Outland
Trophy winner Chris Samuels. In truth, Ellington says, he was
indeed scared at the outset: "I thought I would be redshirted. I
didn't think I had what it took to start as a freshman." It
helps that he's smart and has quick feet. "I knew the plays
pretty well," he says. "Having the coaches believe in me made me
Alabama's brightest hope for immediate help next fall is 6'6",
310-pound tackle Albert Means, who's expected to join fellow
Memphis native Kindal Moorehead on the defensive line.
Moorehead, a junior, started at end as a freshman and made
second-team All-SEC as a sophomore--another example of how
DuBose has challenged the redshirt rule of thumb.
CAVS WON'T BE CUTTING CORNERS
Virginia has just one returning starter in the secondary, but
the Cavaliers are deep at wideout, so starting receiver Ahmad
Hawkins is going to try cornerback this spring.... Looking for a
way to shake junior running back Ja'Mar Toombs loose after a
mediocre season (583 yards rushing), Texas A&M is using some
three-wideout, one-back sets suggested by new offensive
assistant Larry Kirksey, who spent the past six years on the San
Francisco 49ers' staff. Speaking of new Aggies assistants, when
coach R.C. Slocum didn't hire a defensive line coach in time for
spring practice, he decided to coach those players himself. He
last coached that position in the late '70s.
COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL After a stellar sophomore season Kittner thinks improved footwork will make him a better passer.
Since 1994 there have been only six teams that had four wins or
fewer in a season, improved their records by at least five wins
the next year and then sustained that sudden success by equaling
or bettering their win total the third season.
TEAM SEASONS: RECORDS
Rice 1995: 2-8-1 1996: 7-4 1997: 7-4
Purdue 1996: 3-8 1997: 9-3 1998: 9-4
Tulane 1996: 2-9 1997: 7-4 1998: 12-0
Louisville 1997: 1-10 1998: 7-5 1999: 7-4
TCU 1997: 1-10 1998: 7-5 1999: 8-4
Texas 1997: 4-7 1998: 9-3 1999: 9-5