CHICAGO – Martez Wilson visited New Orleans during the NFL Draft process, but didn’t really have time to enjoy the Big Easy during his meetings with the Saints.
“It was just a business trip,” the Chicago native said.
The former Illini linebacker will have plenty of time to enjoy all that Nawlins has to offer after being selected by the Super Bowl XLIV champions in the third round of the draft (72nd overall) on Friday.
“I’m happy. I’m blessed,” Wilson said. “I’m happy my name’s off the board and I’ll be going to a place I think I fit very well. I’m around good coaches, good people, and I’m happy with that.”
Wilson watched the draft with family in Chicago. He waited a little longer than some draft analysts thought. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. rated Wilson as the top inside linebacker in the draft – even though Wilson will play outside linebacker with the Saints – but he was the eighth linebacker selected.
“The past couple of days was all right,” Wilson said. “Today was just more of an anticipation day, just waiting to hear my name called. I was relaxed but just anticipating.”
The Saints finished 2010 with an 11-5 record to earn the fifth seed in the NFC playoffs before being upset by the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks in the Wild Card round. But New Orleans figures to remain a contender with Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees leading the explosive offense.
Wilson may not know much about New Orleans but predicts he’ll enjoy his digs.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Wilson said. “I’m playing with the defending champs not too long ago. I’m going to be playing alongside Jonathan Vilma. (Defensive tackle) Sedrick Ellis is in front of me. It’s a great honor. I can’t wait.”
Mikel Leshoure described his selection by the Detroit Lions with the 57th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft as “the biggest moment of my life.”
Leshoure, the 25th selection in the second round, also registered pretty high on the excitement scale when he was told during a teleconference Friday night that Illini teammate Martez Wilson had been drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the third round with the 72nd overall pick.
“Oh man, Tez is going to the Saints!” Leshoure said. “Oh, that’s crazy. Haha, yeah!”
Leshoure was equally emotional when Corey Liuget shook hands with NFL commission Roger Goodell on Thursday after the former Illini defensive tackle was selected 18th overall by the San Diego Chargers.
“When I saw Corey walk across that stage, it felt like it was me,” Leshoure said. “I got goosebumps. Now that Tez (was picked), I feel like everything is complete. I’m happy for all three of us.”
The Lions traded back into the second round to select Leshoure to complement the quick-footed Jahvid Best, who ran for 867 yards and 12 touchdowns last year as a rookie. Detroit finished in third place in the NFC North in 2010 with a 6-10 record but could have been better if starting quarterback Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 overall pick in 2009, had not sat 13 games due to injury.
But the Lions are projecting upward with Stafford, Best, Pro Bowl wide receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, the 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. The Lions added Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley with the 13th overall selection and Boise State wide receiver Titus Young in the second round.
“When I went on my visit there, I had a good vibe with the coaches,” Leshoure said. “I like the facilities and everything was good. To see that they feel the same about me, it just feels good. I’m excited to get to work with everyone in that organization.”
Leshoure was the fourth running back selected, behind Alabama’s Mark Ingram, Virginia Tech’s Ryan Williams and California’s Shane Vereen. Leshoure didn’t take too much offense.
“That’s something I can’t control,” Leshoure said. “I wish them the best of luck.”
The phone call ended a whirlwind year for Leshoure, who began 2010 spring practice competing for the starting job with classmate Jason Ford. But 1,697 yards and 17 touchdowns later, Leshoure begins his NFL dream.
“For me to get drafted wherever was a blessing whether it was a first round pick or a second rounder or beyond that was still a blessing,” Leshoure said.
“To get that call was just like the earth was lifted off my shoulders.”
CHICAGO– NFL teams and analysts are still trying to pinpoint exactly where Martez Wilson will line up on Sundays.
Some think the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Chicago native that runs like a wide receiver is best roaming at outside linebacker or rushing the passer off the edge in a 3-4 defensive alignment. Others think he found his niche last season as the Illinois middle linebacker where he had his best collegiate season, collecting 112 tackles and 11.5 tackles for loss.
Wilson doesn’t seem to care where he plays. When asked jokingly if he could see himself lining up at safety, Wilson answered as if it was a challenge.
“That’d be nice too. I think I can do it, honestly,” Wilson said Monday on the “Tay and J Show” on ConnectFM. “With some practice and repetition, I think I can have that position down pat.”
Wilson has risen up draft boards since entering the draft in January. He impressed scouts at the NFL Combine – he ran a 4.49-second 40-yard dash – and team workouts. ESPN Scouts Inc. ranks Wilson as the fourth-best linebacker in the draft and the 59th overall prospect. DraftCountdown.com analyst Scott Wright lists Wilson as the top inside linebacker in the field.
Most mock drafts slate Wilson in the second round with some saying he’s a first-round possibility.
Wilson will watch the draft at his parents’ home in Chicago. He hopes to hear his name called Thursday night, when the first round will air. The second and third rounds air Friday night followed by the fourth through seventh rounds on Saturday.
“We just expect my name to be called as early as possible,” Wilson said. “We just anticipate it.”
While there’s plenty of love for Wilson, the draft process usually is equally harsh on prospects. The same analysts that praise Wilson’s athleticism and size question his instincts, his ability to change directions and his toughness. Wright calls him a “better athlete than football player.”
Wilson, um, disagrees with that statement.
“I don’t know how you can say that, be more of an athlete than a football player,” Wilson said. “I think I’m a good football player. I think my room for improvement is great. I’m going to improve every year, but I just use it as motivation. I don’t let it bring me down at all. I use it as something to fuel off of.”
By the time he goes to bed Friday, Wilson should know where he’ll be playing professional football and where he can start to disprove his critics – even if he doesn’t know exactly where he’ll be lining up on the field.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to see me playing linebacker, doing a different variety of things,” Wilson said.
Spring football is near the bottom of the sports priorities for this Midwesterner.
Unlike most Southerners, I’m too preoccupied with March Madness, the start of baseball season and the NBA playoffs to get too excited about 14 college football practices that culminates in one 48-minute intrasquad game. Judging by the announced attendance of 6,000 at Saturday’s Orange and Blue Spring Game at Memorial Stadium, most Illini fans aren’t exactly counting down to the Sept. 3 season-opening kickoff against Arkansas State either.
But after hours of positional drills, seven-on-sevens, thud-tackling and Paul Petrino internet-soundboard-worthy soliloquies, we did learn something about a team coming off its first bowl win of the millennium.
1. Ryan Lankford will be an impact receiver
If the 6-foot, 170-pound sophomore wasn’t on the first team before the spring, he definitely made his case to crack the starting lineup after an impressive month. With returning lead receiver A.J. Jenkins and sophomore Darius Millines out the entire spring due to injury, Lankford developed into the Illini quaterbacks’ favorite and most reliable target. A drop in practice was so rare that it was tweet-worthy.
While he’s added about five pounds since the end of his freshman season, Lankford won’t out-muscle most defenders. But he has sprinter’s speed, runs clean routes and coaches rave about his work ethic. Lankford led the Illini with five catches for 64 yards on Saturday and was awarded Most Improved Offensive Player for the spring.
“It meant a lot,” Lankford said. “It meant all my hard work is really paying off on the field and off the field, that the coaches realize I’m here trying to do my best, trying to be the best player I can be at all times.”
2. The Illini offensive line will be among the best in the Big Ten
Mikel Leshoure received all the accolades but those canyon-sized holes against Northwestern didn’t create themselves. With four starters returning – Graham Pocic, Jack Cornell, Hugh Thornton and Jeff Allen – and former starter Corey Lewis expected back this summer after missing last season with a torn ACL, the Illini offensive line was expected to be the strength of the offense and it lived up to the hype this spring.
Coaches say Allen could be one of the best tackles in the country, and Pocic has a great shot at playing on Sundays. Sheer size – the four returning starters average 6-5, 311 pounds – and experience are the hallmarks of this group. But the lingering question is who starts opposite Allen. Redshirt freshmen Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic competed during the spring. Both improved but are still wet behind the ears. Lewis hopes to reclaim the starter’s spot but must test his surgically repaired knee this summer.
3. Ron Zook may lose most sleep over special teams
The Illini head coach said last week that senior Derek Dimke, who made a school-record 24 field goals last season, could be the best kicker in the country. But an 0-for-2 performance – attempts were from 29 and 31 yards – during a windy Saturday and similar performances throughout the spring didn’t exactly back up those expectations. Dimke is adjusting to a new holder, Tim Russell, and Zook said that may have been cause for the misses. The two have the summer to work out the kinks.
But the “biggest question mark” on the team, Zook said, may be at punter. Kicker Matt Ellar was given a look this spring, but as expected the results weren’t awe-inspiring. The best option on the spring roster may have been Lankford who was a productive – and possibly dangerous – option using a rugby-style, running punt. Incoming freshman Justin Duvernois received a scholarship to be the punter, and the job appears to be his to lose.
4. UI defense needs a top-notch playmaker
Vic Koenning said it’s difficult to find first-round draft picks and the Illini defensive coordinator may have to make up for the loss of two. Last year, offenses had to scheme for defensive tackle Corey Liuget – likely a top-25 pick on Thursday – and linebacker Martez Wilson, also a first-round possibility. Koenning concedes that he doesn’t have a player of that elite ability yet.
“What we got to do is develop strength in numbers and keep telling ourselves, ‘Strength in numbers,’ ” Koenning said. “We’re going to have to do that up front (on the defensive line) and at linebacker and in the secondary. We’re going to have to play fast and fresh and hard until guys develop into what Martez was or what Corey was. Right now, there’s a bunch of guys that we’re trying to get the most out of them and they’re still in the developmental process.”
Freshman All-American Akeem Spence looks solid in the middle of the defense, and converted offensive lineman Craig Wilson has progressed much faster than the Illini envisioned. Bandit Michael Buchannan was solid but unspectacular, as was defensive end Whitney Mercilus before he suffered a busted finger during a weight-room incident. Sophomore linebacker Jonathan Brown may have the most potential to be a difference-maker in the front-seven – he had three tackles for loss on Saturday – but he had some discipline issues this spring. The three most impressive players this spring, according to Koenning, were in the secondary: Tavon Wilson, Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green. The Illini are hoping for more takeaways from their veteran defensive backs.
5. Running back still unsettled but deep
Jason Ford was supposed to be the workhorse last year, but the emergence of Mikel Leshoure – likely a first- or second-round selection after a record-breaking 2010 – set those plans back a year. Lingering knee soreness this spring delayed those plans another month as Ford missed most of the last two weeks of the spring. His backups, Troy Pollard and Bud Golden, also were nicked up for the majority of the spring. But redshirt freshman Ean Days, a 1,300-yard rusher as a senior in high school, emerged in the final week as a capable ballcarrier after switching from defensive back.
Days showed some shiftiness as he carried the bulk of the load on Saturday, though he did fumble a few times. A sprained foot limited Golden, a more straight-line runner, and Days made a case to move up the depth chart.
“At the end of the day, it’s up to the coaches where I’m going to be come summer or whatever,” Days said. “From what they tell me, I’m moving up, but I guess we’ll just have to see.”
“To me, Ean really impressed me,” Golden said. “I don’t want another guy to come in and take my position. We’re making each other better.”
Freshmen Donnovon Young and Josh Ferguson will increase the competition when they arrive on campus in June. The Illini need Ford and Pollard to be a credible threat in the Big Ten, but at least they added some depth this spring.
CHAMPAIGN– The temperature inside the Irwin Indoor Practice Facility was a comfortable 30 degrees higher than the near-freezing conditions outside, butIllinoisrunning back Ean Days was sweating like he had just gone through another summer two-a-day in stifling southern Georgia.
A banged up Illini backfield forced the Kingsland,Ga., native to take a majority of the carries during Wednesday morning’s scrimmage.
“I’m handling it all right,” Days said. “I’m pretty tired.”
Nursing injuries for most of the spring, starting running back Jason Ford missed practice again with a sore knee after testing it out and limping off the practice field Monday. Backups Troy Pollard and Bud Golden also have been dinged up, so Days – who switched from defensive back at the start of spring practice – is the only fully healthy tailback on the roster.
“He wanted to go to running back,”Illinoiscoach Ron Zook said. “He’s going to get a full plate of it.”
Days, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound redshirt freshman, doesn’t mind the crashcourse as a ballcarrier. Actually, defensive back was a more foreign position for the celebrated prep tailback.
“It’s like getting back home,” Days said. “(Defensive back) has nothing to do with it. I never played DB in my life until I got here. Running back’s where I’ve been my whole life, so it’s like second-hand to me.”
Days may be getting a leg up on incoming freshmen Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson on the fall depth chart.
“He’s doing good,” Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “Thank God we have him. He’s taken a million reps. …He’s tough. He’ll stick his nose in there and protect people. That’s half of it. That’s really 90 percent of it really is just being a tough back, and he is so he does a good job.”
“For as much as he’s had to learn in this short amount of time – our offense is pretty complex, even for a running back – he’s really done an excellent job,” starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “Once he kind of learns it all, he’d run more like a natural running back.”
Zook said Ford will miss Saturday’s scrimmage but that Pollard and Golden should participate. But look for Days and fullback Jay Prosch to receive a majority of the carries.
“I got to make the most of it,” Days said. “I got to make the most of everything I do out here.”
Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther said during a rare sitdown with media in February that he would not force basketball coach Bruce Weber to make any staff changes despite underwhelming results on the court since a national runner-up finish in 2005.
While Guenther could make a recommendation for fresh blood – he said Weber can’t be “loyal to a fault” – the Illini assistants may make that decision easier on the head coach.
“Probably all of them have tried to see what’s out there,” Weber said. “Right now, nothing definite. We’ll see how the summer goes, if something pops up.”
But the youngest Illini assistant – and most expensive – has the most marketability. Jerrance Howard, 30, has earned interest the last few years and consequently received two raises from Illinois since 2009.
The latest interest came via Florida coach Billy Donovan, who added Norm Roberts and John Pelphrey to his staff yesterday.
“When you get a name as a recruiter, I think it’s positive for him,” Weber said. “He’s a young, energetic guy. We’ll see what happens.”
Weber said he understands he’ll probably lose Howard “sooner or later.” But after spending 18 years as a Purdue assistant before earning his first head coaching job at Southern Illinois, Weber said Howard should wait for the best – not just the next – opportunity to make a move.
“I think his goal is to be a head coach,” he said. “It was great with what VCU did (with Shaka Smart) and Brad Stevens (at Butler), but sometimes a lot of young coaches think, ‘Oh, I got to do it. My turn.’ I think you got to get experience and be patient. If the opportunity comes, you got to be ready. That’s the biggest thing, whether it’s NBA guys or professional, if you become a head (coach) you have to be ready because you might never get another chance.”
Jay Price is an eight-year veteran on Weber’s staff, and Wayne McClain has been an assistant at Illinois for 10 years.
Mike Davis was a late after-thought to the Illinois 2007 recruiting class, but he leaves Champaign as the team’s most valuable player, as voted by the Illini players.
“It’s awesome,” said Davis after receiving the MVP award at the Illini’s season-ending banquet at the Holiday Inn in Urbana. “To have the respect of my teammates, to know my teammates look up to me and respect my game and respect what I do everyday in practice. It’s a great honor.”
Davis was the Illini’s second-leading scorer with 12.5 points per game, behind Demetri McCamey (14.6), and led Illinois with 7.1 rebounds. Davis was the most consistent performer for an inconsistent team, especially down the stretch. Davis averaged 14.9 points and 7.8 rebounds over the last 14 games.
Weber convinced the 6-foot-9 forward from Virginia to skip a year at prep school and move to the Midwest. The gamble proved worthwhile for both sides. Davis finishes his career ranked second on the school’s all-time rebound list with 909 and his 1,279 points are the 22nd most in program history.
Team MVP – Mike Davis
Rebounder Award – Mike Davis
Ralf Woods free throw award (best percentage in Big Ten play) – Brandon Paul
Orange Krush Three-Point Award – Demetri McCamey
Lou Henson Courage Award (most charges) – Mike Tisdale
Kenny Battle Inspirational Player award – Bill Cole
Most Improved Player award – Crandall Head
CHAMPAIGN – Bruce Weber doesn’t expect any more departures from the Illinois roster this offseason, the Illini coach said following Tuesday’s team banquet.
Of course, Weber didn’t exactly foresee Jereme Richmond entering the NBA Draft.
“I didn’t honestly know Jereme was going to go because it was from one day to the next a total different mindset,” Weber said. “Like I said before, I just wish him the best. I hope he works at it and makes it because it will be good for everyone in the long run.”
Richmond – who was suspended during the Illini’s two NCAA Tournament games for undisclosed reasons – returned to the Illinois campus on March 28 following the Illini’s second-round loss to Kansas, met with coaches and went through workouts with the team.
But within a few days, his focus shifted toward the draw of the NBA.
“He was there Monday and was all fired up and was going to be part of (the Illini team),” Weber said. “Then he came in Wednesday and he said, ‘I’m thinking about it.’ Then we talked and talked to mom and dad. It went through that week and then the weekend he made that decision. He had it in his mind that he needed to leave. That’s his mindset.”
Teammates were just as surprised to see Richmond, who avereaged 7.6 points and 5.0 rebounds in 31 collegiate games, bolt for the NBA.
“It was a little shocking,” senior Mike Davis said. “We all know how talented he is. We know he can play in the NBA. But is he ready? I think he’ll get drafted in the first round. He’s a tremendous talent, a rare talent. He can play the one through four.”
Richmond likely will hire an agent soon, Weber said, and forgo his three remaining years of NCAA eligibility. Most scouting services predict Richmond to be selected in the late first to second round of the draft.
“The big thing is he has to hit the gym and be ready,” Weber said. “If you’re going to make a move, you got to go and you got to work at it.
“I think he’ll have an opportunity.”
Davis, who has his own NBA dreams, said interviews with NBA teams could significantlly affect Richmond’s draft stock.
“Everyone’s going to want to know why you’re leaving,” Davis said. ”What happened? If he comes back with positive reviews from interviews he’ll be fine.”
Devin Langford excels in what is the second- or third-most popular sport in SEC country. But the Huntsville (Ala.) Lee senior learned during a fall visit to the University of Illinois campus that unlike the football-crazy South, basketball is king in the Land of Lincoln.
“Other schools looking at him were football schools (including Auburn and Alabama),” said James Langford, Devin’s father, on Thursday afternoon. ”That’s what you get here in the SEC. Illinois was the first school he felt like that had a bigger love for basketball. When he was on a visit (to Champaign during the fall), he was blown away by how many people recognized him and the community support for the team.”
So much so that Devin, a 6-foot-7 guard/forward, verbally committed to the Illini in December. He will sign a national letter of intent to play at Illinois during a ceremony Wednesday, the first day of the spring signing period.
Illini coach Bruce Weber will announce the signing during a 2 p.m. press conference Wednesday, the first day he can comment on Langford due to NCAA rules.
James Langford, who liked watching Illinois as a high school student, said he thinks Illini coach Weber is the type of “guard-oriented,” motivational coach that can push his son to reach his potential.
James said he’ll make the more than 460-mile drive from Huntsville, in the heart of SEC country, to take in Devin’s first game at the Assembly Hall, the center of college hoops in basketball-crazy Illinois.
“I have a gang of church members that promised me a caravan to go up to the first game,” James Langford said. “It’s exciting.”
CHAMPAIGN – Once was enough. Twice got Jonathan Brown kicked out of practice.
The Illinois sophomore linebacker received an early exit from Saturday’s scrimmage when he took a swing at a teammate, the second on-the-field skirmish for Brown this spring.
“It happened in the Michigan State game (last fall),” Illinois coach Ron Zook said. “It happened another time out here this spring. You got to learn. We got to correct it. Otherwise, he’s not going to be in there anyway.”
After a promising freshman season, Brown – one of the most natural and instinctual linebackers on the Illini roster – came into the spring as a likely starter despite a nagging ankle injury. But Brown may slide down the depth chart following a few tussles with teammates and the emergence of redshirt Houston Bates.
“What he fooled around and did is lost his position,” Zook said. “That’s what happens. Houston Bates comes out here and took his position. That’s fine with me. Now, he’ll have to fight his way to get it back.”
While Brown has brought Zook and his staff headaches, Bates has been a pleasant surprise. The Louisiana native is inexperienced but has impressed coaches with his motor. Bates forced a fumble and collected consecutive sacks near the close of the scrimmage.
“Houston plays really, really hard,” Illini defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. “That’s just a great example of if you go really hard you may not always be right, but if you go really hard, you’re going to make an impact.”
Added Zook: “Houston Bates was probably the guy to me that showed up the most. I think he’s probably worked himself into the position where he’s going to play an awful lot of football.”
Spring practice #6 notes:
- The Illini scrimmaged in front of a small contingent of fans for most of the two-hour practice session at Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Backup quarterback Miles Osei wore a blue jersey, opening him up to hits from the defense – and he took a few jarring jolts. Starter Nathan Scheelhaase wore the red non-contact jersey and will wear it until he takes the field against Arkansas State on Sept. 3. “Probably a bit more (hits on Osei than we wanted) at times, but he did a good job. It makes a big difference for those guys. Even Nathan wanted to do it, but obviously you’re not going to let Nathan do it.”
- The passing game struggled, but even without starting running back Jason Ford (knee) and fullback Jay Prosch (illness in his family), the Illini rushing attack tore into the defense. Troy Pollard had a few long carries, as did both quarterbacks. The Illinois offensive line is expected to be a team strength and has proved as much this spring. “The offense was gashing the defense running the football,” Zook said. “I thought he tackled a little bit better than what you normally do in the first scrimmage, but way too many big runs, which is good for the offense and bad for the defense.”
- Redshirt freshman Michael Heitz repped with the first-string offense. The Vermont, Ill., native is competing with classmate Simon Cvijanovic for the starting job this spring, while Corey Lewis continues to recover from a knee injury. “Michael’s getting better. Him and Simon both are competing for that position,” Zook said. “I don’t know if any of them have the edge. Don’t put a lot into who’s out there first right now.”
- Coaches rarely come away from an intrasquad scrimmage happy because one side’s success is tempered by the other’s failures. On Saturday, offensive coordinator Paul Petrino left the field in a better mood than defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, who is looking for an on-the-field leader after the departures of NFL prospects Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson. “We didn’t have the leadership to say, ‘Let’s step it up and be great,’” Koenning said. “It doesn’t need to come from me.”
- Koenning has a few possible leaders in mind: senior linebacker Ian Thomas and junior defensive ends Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan. “If they want to lead by their mouth, you got to back it up,” Koenning said. “I’d rather have their actions speak louder than anything they say. Right now, we got to get some guys to step up and be tough guys. Just be tough. ‘Come on. You go as fast as hard as I do.’ That’s what we need.”
- Converted offensive lineman Craig Wilson did give Koenning something to be happy about. Early in the scrimmage, the 6-foot-5, 320-pound defensive tackle – who’s further along in his development than coaches expected – followed a tackle for loss with a batted pass at the line of scrimmage. “Thank goodness we got him,” Koenning said. “He’s going to be a guy that penetrates and clogs the middle. Eventually, he’ll learn to get off blocks and make tackles. We’re not to that point yet. But you know what, I raised – or my wife raised, I should say – three boys, but what I remember of it, they had to crawl before they could walk and they had to walk before they could run.”