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            Akeem Spence will forego his last year of eligibility at Illinois to enter the NFL draft, the junior defensive tackle announced Friday.

            The Fort Walton Beach, Fla., native started every game the last three years after redshirting in 2009. He was third in tackles (72) and tied for second in tackles-for-loss (7) this fall, and was All-Big Ten honorable mention. That included 11 tackles, seven solos and two TFLs, all career highs, in his final Illinois appearance, at Northwestern.

         The 6-1, 305-pound Spence, who will graduate on Saturday with a degree in communications, has been projected as a third- to fourth-round prospect by some online scouting services.

         ``I would like to thank the University of Illinois for giving me an opportunity to become a great student-athlete,'' Spence said in a statement. ``The current and past coaching staffs have been very supportive. My family and I look forward to the journey ahead.''

            Spence is the eighth Illinois player in the last six years to enter the draft with eligibility remaining. The previous seven all were taken in the first three rounds, including four first-rounders, tied with Florida and USC for the second-most first-round picks. Only Alabama (9) has had more. Spence is the third defensive linemen to leave Illinois early in as many years. He follows Corey Liuget (2010) and Whitney Mercilus (2011), who both were first-round picks. 

            ``We wish Akeem nothing but the best,'' Illini coach Tim Beckman said. ``He's worked very hard on the field and in the classroom to put himself in this position.''

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

            Intent on reviving an lllinois football program that went 2-10 in his first season, coach Tim Beckman announced the signing of five junior-college players on Wednesday.

            One of the recruits, 290-pound defensive tackle Abe Cajuste, could come in handy. Junior Akeem Spence is expected to announce he will forego his senior season and enter the NFL draft this week.

            Linebacker Jonathan Brown, who also has a bright pro future, has decided to return for his senior season after struggling through an injury-filled 2012 campaign.

            Cajuste, from Miami, Fla., by way of Victor Valley (Calif.) College, ``gives us a big body on the defensive line,'' Beckman said. ``He will help add depth with the departure of several key seniors from the line.''

            Illinois will lose 7-1/2 starters on defense, including all but one co-starter, Tim Kynard, on the defensive line. It could return nine starters on offense, but is losing its two best linemen, Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton.

            Beckman is expected to bring in approximately 28 players, including JuCos and high-school signees during this recruiting season.

            Two of the junior-college signees are defensive backs from California: safety Zane Petty, from American River College, and star (hybrid safety/linebacker) Eric Finney, from College of the Canyons.

            Illinois has not gone the junior-college route often since Mike White ran a successful California junior-college pipeline in the '80s. Since then, two of Illinois' most prominent JuCos have been defensive backs--Trulon Henry, who completed his career a year ago, and Kelvin Hayden, who played in Champaign in 2003-04 and is now with the Bears.

            The other two signees are offensive players: wide receiver Martize Barr, from Washington, D.C., by way of New Mexico and Iowa Western C.C.; and lineman Dallas Hinkhouse, also from Iowa Western.

            Beckman opted to postpone a press briefing until next month, when up to five high-school recruits are expected to enroll at Illinois to participate in spring practice. The new coach enthusiastically welcomed the junior-college signees in a statement, though.

            ``The most exciting part is that they fill immediate needs for us,'' Beckman said. ``They all play a different position of need and are spread across all areas of the team. The fact that we were able to go throughout the country and sell Illinois football to these young men and their families shows the work ethic and commitment from our staff.''

 

Neil Hayes, Herb Gould, and others share their thoughts on the Illinois-Northwestern game.

          All quiet on the Midwestern front.

            While bemoaning the ``most [injuries] I've ever been around in my entire life,'' Illinois coach Tim Beckman said Monday that it's too early to tell which wounded Illini might be available for Louisiana Tech on Saturday (7 p.m., BTN).

            It's a list that includes third-year starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase (ankle); key offensive lineman, center Graham Pocic (knee); leading rusher Josh Ferguson (concussion); key wideout Darius Millines (shoulder), middle linebacker Houston Bates (ankle) and kicker Nick Immekus (leg muscle).

            ``I can't say anybody [in that group will return] for sure,'' Beckman said. ``That'll have to be determined as we go through Tuesday and Wednesday'' practices.

            An educated guess is that Scheelhaase, Ferguson and Bates are the most promising, Millines  is the most questionable, and Pocic and Immekus are somewhere in between. But that's only a guess.

            If Beckman sat some dinged players vs. FCS Charleston Southern to let them heal for the long haul, that would make a lot of sense. But if the Illini coach didn't want to say that publicly, that would make sense, too.

            ``We're not being cautious with anybody,'' Beckman said. ``[Scheelhaase] just wasn't ready. We're not going to put anybody out there that's not ready.''

            LA. DI DA: There's no question that Louisiana Tech will be a major test for Illinois' defense. The Bulldogs (2-0), who are favored to repeat as WAC champions, are averaging 56 points a game, third in the nation, and have scored 14 touchdowns on 21 possessions in their first two games. Their opener at Texas A&M was postponed by Hurricane Isaac.

            ``They've had a tremendous amount of yards after contact,'' Beckman said. ``They're making a lot of people miss. They've had 14 touchdowns in 14 [red-zone] possessions. They're No. 1 in the red zone in the country. They've been very successful.''

            QUICK COUNTS: Considering that La. Tech has allowed 86 points in wins over Houston (56-49) and Rice (56-37), Illinois' offense, which has scored four touchdowns in its two games against FBS opponents, will need to shift into high gear this week.Healthy or not.

            * This game features sheepskins as well as pigskin. Illinois has 10 players who already have earned their degrees, tied for fifth in the nation. La. Tech has nine, for ninth.

            * Illinois' MVPs in its 44-0 rout of Charleston Southern were receiver Ryan Lankford (offense), linebacker Mason Monheim ( defense), kicker Taylor Zalewski (special teams) and punt returner Tommy Davis (special teams).

 


 

 


              After sitting out Tuesday, Nathan Scheelhaase practiced on his sprained left ankle on Wednesday, but Illlini coach Tim Beckman still is considering starting Miles Osei or Reilly O'Toole at Arizona State Saturday night (9:30 p.m., ESPN).

            ``He's much better than he was yesterday,'' Beckman said. ``We'll see how [the ankle] responds. It's been progressing, and we'll have to make that decision on Thursday after practice.''

            Beckman, who said he routinely tries to divide reps equally among his quarterbacks, is not expected to announce the decision publicly. That not only would keep the Sun Devils guessing. Beckman and his staff could change their starting QB plan right before kickoff, depending on Scheelhaase's ankle and their confidence in Osei or O'Toole.

            Although O'Toole, who saw a lot of playing time last fall, is more experienced, Osei has been impressive in pre-season practice, showing a strong arm as well as mobility. Beckman has vowed to use Osei at wide receiver and running back, if not quarterback, this week.

 

            Nathan Scheelhaase practiced Sunday night, but Illini coach Tim Beckman said Monday he wants to see more before making a decision on the third-year starter's status for Illinois' trip to Arizona State Saturday night (9:30 p.m., ESPN).

            After leading Illinois to its only two offensive touchdowns in Saturday's 24-7 victory over Western Michigan, Scheelhaase left the game in the third quarter with an apparent left-ankle sprain.

            The fact that he practiced a day later appears to be a good sign for Scheelhaase, who threw a 64-yard touchdown pass and had a four-yard TD run against the Broncos.

            Scheelhaase ``was moving around, but definitely not 100 percent,'' Beckman said. ``We're going to have to continue to evaluate throughout the week. You know Nathan is very committed to everything that he does, so I know he will give it everything he's got to make sure that he's healthy. We'll have to make those decisions as the week goes on.''

            The coaching staff, training staff and Scheelhaase all will be involved in the decision.

            ``I want him healthy,'' Beckman said. ``Does he have to be 100 percent? He has to be healthy enough for him to be successful in what we're asking him to do.''

            Scheelhaase's backups are strong-armed sophomore Reilly O'Toole, who lacks Scheelhaase's mobility, and athletic junior Miles Osei, who's expected to be on the field in a variety of roles this fall. Osei had an impressive fall camp, but is the least experienced quarterback option.

            ``Reilly's very capable of doing what we need to do to be successful,'' Beckman said, adding that the versatile Osei will get more touches this week. ``Miles Osei needs to be in the game more than he was. Whether at quarterback, wide receiver or running back, he needs to be on the field. So he will be.''

Since the Illini have announced they will play the Washington Huskies at Soldier Field on Sept. 14, 2013, here''s what I wrote the last time Illinois played in the home of the Bears, on Sept. 1, 1994.

 I remember it well for a number of reasons. . .it was my first game on the Illinois football beat. . . Simeon Rice had an amazing five sacks, but the Illini lost a heartbreaker. . . and a disappointing turnout caused athletic director Ron Guenther to rethink his plans to play more games in Chicago.

I applaud new AD Mike Thomas' plan to try more games in Chicago. But fans will be the ones who determine whether that's more successful this time around.

Here's my game story and notebook from the Sept. 2, 1994, editions of the Sun-Times. . . 


By Herb Gould

New season. New location. Same old story. 

Illinois, which vowed that it had learned, didn't get its act together when it counted most.

Trying to impress Chicago - and especially a crowd of 39,472 with a rare visit to Soldier Field - the Fighting Illini instead tripped on their own mistakes Thursday, not to mention an impressive Washington State defense.

The result was a 10-9 Washington State victory in the season opener for both teams. The only touchdown was  a 71-yard run with a fumble recovery by Washington State's burly linebacker, Mark Fields.

Typical of Illinois' frustration, quarterback Johnny Johnson, who had coughed up the ball, couldn't catch Fields even though Johnson had a good angle on the Cougar defender.

"It's a disappointing loss. Our players are devastated," said Illinois coach Lou Tepper, whose squad had been determined not to repeat last year's 0-3 nonconference start. "It's going to take a heck of a job by our coaches and players to come back. It remains to be seen whether we have the work habits and unity to do that. This was one they expected to win."

The defeat marred a spectacular five-sack, one-blocked-field-goal performance by Simeon Rice, the outside linebacker from Mount Carmel.

"This loss is worse than any loss I've had at Illinois because it's here in Chicago," said Rice, whose 22 career sacks put him  one behind Scott Davis, Illinois' all-time leader. "The sacks, not giving up a touchdown on defense, that means nothing. We lost. It's a team game.

"It's very frustrating. We put our hearts on the line. But mental errors really hurt. This loss could be good for us. Now we know what kind of maturity we have to show."

Even winning ugly probably wouldn't have dazzled Illinois' sophisticated Chicago-area alumni.

And that basically put the Illini behind the eight-ball before the kickoff. Because the Cougars, who were second in the nation against the run last season, are a quick, blitzing defense that's capable of putting the clamps on the best of teams.

"It feels good, coming all the way from Pullman, Wash., and winning here," said Fields, a 6-2, 238-pounder whose run gave the Cougars  a 10-3 lead with 15 seconds left in the half. "We were excited to be in Chicago. But we came here to do a job, too."

Scott Richardson's three field goals kept Illinois in the game until the final seconds. Richardson yielded to strong-legged freshman Bret Scheuplein, who came up short on a 57-yard attempt as time expired.

The statistics that told the story were four lost fumbles by Illinois, and five net yards rushing on 29 attempts. A 12-yard run by freshman Robert Holcombe, who showed good promise, merely demonstrated how effectively Washington State's defense throttled the Illinois offense.

Asked about the absence of first-string running back Ty Douthard sidelined by a pulled hamstring, Tepper said, "Ty would have given us a more physical runner and would have helped for protection on the blitzes."

But taking care of the ball, particularly by Johnson,  would have helped a lot more. On both of Johnson's fumbles, especially the one that Fields picked up, Johnson still was straining to get something done when the smart play would have been to protect the ball.

The Illini suffered a setback early in the first quarter when All-Big Ten inside linebacker John Holecek sprained an ankle. Holecek did not return and was listed as questionable for the Illini's Sept.  10 game against Missouri in Champaign.

But the linebacker-rich Illini got an impressive performance from freshman David James, who stepped in for Holecek and played well alongside fellow East St. Louis product Dana Howard.

As promised, Tepper played backup quarterback Scott Weaver for one series. With Illinois trailing 10-9 midway through the third quarter, Weaver passed for one first down, before Illinois bogged down.

Now, they'll just have to see if they can regroup.

 

 

ILLINI NOTEBOOK

By Herb Gould

Pronouncing Illinois' trip to Soldier Field to play Washington

State Thursday night an unqualified success, Illinois athletic

director Ron Guenther said, "We're committed to bringing a game back

within three or four years. I'd like every class to play a game in

Chicago."

Though the attendance of 39,472 was not  very high for a school

that averaged 51,000 in Champaign last season, its lowest total in 12

years, Guenther said that didn't disappoint him.

"I think we have talked too much about attendance," Guenther

said. "That wasn't the point of this game. This was a stepping-off

point. We're saying to Chicago, 'We want to be a part of it. We're

coming back.' This was an investment in the future."

NO HAIL TO THE CHIEF: Not everybody loves Chief Illiniwek.

Native American sympathizers protested Illinois' use of the Indian

motif outside Soldier Field Thursday night.

"Native people are not mascots," one banner announced.

"Support U of I athletics. Denounce U of I racism," another

said.

A woman with a bullhorn led chants by a small group of

protesters, who said, "Stop racism. Dump Chief Illiniwek."

Some orange-and-blue clad fans booed the demonstration.  Others

laughed derisively.

"Shut up. Shut up. Shut up," one man in orange-and-blue said,

provoking more disdain from Illini fans.

Asked if he had seen the protesters, Guenther said, "Didn't have

to. I see them all the time. I can go on the Quad and see them

Tuesday. But that's all right. That's their right. This comes up from

time to time. It's part of the culture."

CHICAGO CONNECTION: Thursday's game was the first in the city

for Illinois since the University of Chicago dropped out of the Big

Ten in 1939. The Illini won their last eight games against U. of C.,

including a 46-0 thumping in '39.

Illinois played its first- Big Ten game against U. of C. in

1896. The Maroons won 12-0.

The Fighting Illini also played the legendary Carlisle Indians

twice in Chicago, including an 1897 contest at the Chicago Coliseum

that was Illinois' first indoor game, and its first at night.

RIVALRY:  Wisconsin running back Terrell Fletcher, who's from

suburban St. Louis, has been looking forward to the first meeting

between his high school, Hazelwood East, and Illini linebacker Dana

Howard's alma mater, East St. Louis, on Sept. 10.

The two football powers, separated by the Mississippi River, had

never met because of a variety of concerns, including security at

what figures to be an intense game.

"You tell Dana Hazelwood's going to kill East St. Louis,"

Fletcher said with a grin when he chatted with Chicago reporters

during training

camp last month.

Informed of Fletcher's bragging, Howard said, "We'll see about

that."

No stakes have been set beyond bragging rights. But Howard

figures to be giving or hearing plenty of smart talk when he meets

Fletcher in the Illinois-Wisconsin season finale, to be played Nov.

19 in Madison.

COUGAR COMEBACK: Linebacker Payam Saadat didn't make Washington

State's two-deep depth chart. But the senior from Santa Monica,

Calif., was just glad to be back in shoulder pads after a tragic,

bizarre accident.

In the spring of 1993, Saadat and a teammate constructed a pipe

bomb just to see if they could do it. Trouble was, the detonating

wires touched and the bomb exploded while they were transporting it

to a field to detonate it. The teammate was killed and Saadat lost

his left hand and suffered injuries to his leg.

Undeterred, he worked himself back into football condition and

dressed for Thursday night's game.

FROSH FACES: Six Illinois freshmen made the trip to Chicago, but

coach Lou Tepper was only planning to use two. Running back Robert

Holcombe was scheduled to be used in the backfield and on punt

returns, and Bret Scheuplein is the No. 1 kickoff man and backup

punter. Also dressing were offensive guard Ryan Schau, running back

George McDonald and defensive backs Trevor Starghill and Steve

Willis.

 

            An already spicy Big Ten opener between Penn State and Illinois just got a little hotter.

            Ryan Nowicki, a redshirt freshman offensive lineman from Glendale, Ariz., who has Illinois roots, is transferring to Champaign. The 6-5, 280-pound Nowicki, who has four years of eligibility left, is the eighth Penn State player to leave State College under NCAA sanctions that allow players to change schools without penalty.

            Nowicki is the first Nittany Lion to transfer within the Big Ten. Leading the departures from Penn State is star running back Silas Redd, who is headed for USC.

            New coach Bill O'Brien will lead Penn State against Illinois in Champaign on Sept. 29 opposite Tim Beckman, who also is in his first year as Illini coach. Sources said O'Brien already was not pleased with Beckman, who dispatched eight assistants to Penn State to talk to Nittany Lions about transferring.

            While some Big Ten coaches declined to recruit Penn State players in wake of the scandal at the scandal, Beckman defended the move, pointing out that no rules were broken. Other Big Ten schools reportedly were recruiting in State College, but they weren't as visible as the Illlnois staff.

            The game shapes up as an important barometer for both schools and their first-year coaches. Penn State opens league play with a road test after a relatively low-keyed nonconference schedule. Illinois, which travels to conference powers Wisconsin and Michigan on Oct. 6 and 13, could give itself a boost by taking care of business at home first.

            For all the attention Ilinois' recruitment of Penn State players has attracted, Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase doesn't expect the contest to turn into a grudge match.

            ``I don't think it will,'' the three-year starter said. ``I think people forget about any grudges they held pretty quick, especially when the season gets going. Because then it's about winning ballgames.

            ``I think there will be more hype surrounding Its first weekend of the Big Ten. It's our opener, and I'm sure people will be paying attention to Penn State and how their season is shaping up. But we'll be foused on doing our best job to find a way to get a win, and I'm sure they'll be doing the same.''

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

            Key Illinois defensive end Michael Buchanan suffered a broken jaw in a Champign area altercation, spokesman Kent Brown said Wednesday.

``He has his jaw wired shut, but we hope to have him back for the season,'' said Brown, adding that Buchanan's recovery timetable won't be set formally until he's seen by more medical personnel.

            Buchanan, a 6-6, 240-pound senior from Homewood-Flossmoor, was second-team All-Big Ten last fall, when his 7.5 sacks ranked fourth in the Big Ten. He considered declaring for the NFL draft, but opted to remain at Illinois after meeting with new coach Tim Beckman and his staff.

 

Score another shrewd move for Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany.
The plan to strengthen ties with the Pac-12 by increasing athletic competition is a nice subtle response to the expansion mayhem that is sweeping the nation. It will give the two leagues a way to grow the audiences of their television networks without the complications and headaches.
The Big East's frantic trans-continental expansion plans to keep its football league alive are fraught with peril. Even the rock-solid SEC, with its additions of Texas A&M and Missouri, has created the potential for scheduling and geography issues.
Having covered an early-season game in the Rose Bowl--a 6-3 UCLA win over Illinois on Sept. 13, 2003--I can tell you a game like that can be a mere step-child to the Granddaddy of Them All. But it also has the potential to be good stuff--Illinois and Arizona State put on a good show in Champaign in September--if the teams are right.
And a series of Big Ten/Pac-12 nonconference matchups will beat the stuffing out of those endless tuneups in which Northeast Southwest State picks up a guarantee for getting pounded.
It's also a nice tip of the cap to the conferences' Rose Bowl partner and other bowl-system proponents who don't want a Plus-One or playoff system shoved down their throat. By further solidifying ties with the Pac-12, the Big Ten, which has been the conference most concerned with protecting the bowl system, has added a stronger potential ally.
Adding more competitive early-season games to the basketball schedules also seems promising.
The recent additions of Nebraska to the Big Ten, and Utah and Colorado to the Pac-12, are looking like solid moves that give the two leagues conference-championship-game symmetry and television benefits without reaching too far.
This new partnership also seems like a good next step because it allows the leagues to remain flexible.
If Notre Dame ever reverses its field and wants to join the Big Ten, that would be irresistible. In the meantime, since the Irish have given every indication they're not interested, the Big Ten has found a way to turn on more television sets, and enhance recruiting, throughout the vast Pac-12 West.
It's a good move for the Big Ten, another careful advance by Delany in the changing world of big-time college athletics.

ENDIT



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