University of Illinois alumni who suffered through the 2008 football season, which came to a dreadful and swift ending on Saturday at Northwestern, can be assured that help is on the way--if coach Ron Zook and his staff can develop them into Big 10 performers.
I covered the East St. Louis/Glenbard West Class 7A semifinal on Saturday in Glen Ellyn--I certainly had something better to do than spend a nauseating few hours in Evanston--and, believe me, Illini recruits Terry Hawthorne and Tommie Hopkins are the real deal.
For years, Illinois couldn't sign a player out of East St. Louis with the exception of Dana Howard. Most of the many talented athletes who played for Fred Cameron, Cornelius Perry and Bob Shannon went to Missouri. Remember Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow?
But Zook got Hawthorne and Hopkins. And he might get Kraig Appleton, Hawthorne's running mate at wide receiver. Based on Saturday's performances, however, Hawthorne and Hopkins are the prize catches.
Hawthorne was the best player on the field. The 6-1, 185-pound senior caught three touchdown passes in the first half--for 40, 81 and 4 yards. He is a game-breaker. On the 81-yarder, he caught a short pass on the line of scrimmage on the right side, ran directly across the field, evaded several tacklers and turned up the left side line and outran a host of defenders.
Hawthorne is a difference-maker on defense, too. In the second half, when he didn't catch a single pass as East St. Louis concentrate on its running game, he made several key tackles to stifle Glenbard West scoring threats. On at least two occasions, the only thing that prevented a Glenbard West runner from breaking loose for a touchdown was Hawthorne's hand on his ankle.
"I like to put the ball in my hands," Hawthorne said afterward. "I like catching the ball and I like hitting, too. I'm a playmaker. When my number is called, I get to make plays."
For two years, despite the presence of Appleton and other Division I prospects, East St. Louis coach Darren Sunkett has insisted that Hawthorne is his best player. If there were any doubts, they were erased on Saturday in Glen Ellyn.
"Hawthorne is a great athlete but what separates him from others is his heart, his desire," Sunkett said. "You can't coach that. When the game is on the line, you can count on No. 3 (Hawthorne). He's our Champ Bailey and Charles Woodson. He makes plays."
There was a time when Illini fans thought Hopkins was a throw-in, someone to seal the deal for Hawthorne and maybe Appleton. Not so. Hopkins, a 6-0, 175-pounder, plays linebacker for East St. Louis but he will play strong safety or free safety at Illinois. If he isn't a double for NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, he is a very good imitation...fast, hard hitting, aggressive, all over the field.
Be sure to watch East St. Louis on Saturday afternoon in the Class 7A championship game in Memorial Stadium in Champaign. Illini fans will be glad they did.