Pre-Season Rankings

Football season is a couple months away, but Zook’s rebuilding and the surprising run to the Rose Bowl are paying off. The AP Poll has Illinois ranked #20, the third Big Ten team on their list. The USA Today Poll puts the Illini at #18 — just ahead of Michigan. And Athlon Sports has them at #16.

Of course, they have to play to give meaning to these rankings, but it’s been a few years since Illini football has been on the radar before the season starts. And to be ranked near the top of the conference with Ohio State and Michigan — we’ll take it. I’m looking forward to summer, but already my excitement for football season is building…

Go Illini!

Notts built a 13-point lead at the top of Division One after a six-wicket win over Hampshire at the Rose Bowl.

They began the final day needing a further 134 with nine wickets intact.

Dimitri Mascarenhas struck twice in two balls for Hants before Mark Wagh reached fifty from 57 balls, but with only 70 more needed rain intervened.

That prompted an early lunch and tea, but 40 overs were left as play resumed and though Wagh fell for 67, Samit Patel hit 11 fours in an unbeaten 65.

Hampshire’s faint hopes of victory were not helped by an injury to paceman Nantie Hayward, that prevented the South African taking the field.

But Mascarenhas induced Will Jefferson to edge a simple catch to Michael Lumb at slip for 21 and when Adam Voges gave a bat-pad catch to wicketkeeper Nic Pothas it was 74-3. and 114 were still required.

England pace bowler Chris Tremlett failed to find line and length, however, and conceded 27 from his first four overs.

Wagh and Patel put on 91 in 18 overs for the fourth wicket, but with only 23 more needed Wagh flashed at a wide delivery from James Tomlinson to give Pothas another catch.

Patel edged an outswinger from James Tomlinson but Sean Ervine put down a routine chance at second slip, and the burly Notts all-rounder struck the winning runs with a fluent stroke to the mid-wicket boundary.

Illinois starts spring with Rose repeat in sights

It was a rags-to-riches campaign in Champaign last season, but will the good times last? Though the majority of its starters return, Illinois must replace three All-Big Ten players, including star tailback Rashard Mendenhall. Although capable tailbacks remain and good ones are coming in, the emphasis this spring figures to be on upgrading the passing offense, which ranked 109th in the nation a year ago. Here’s a look at the Illini as they prepare to begin spring practice.

POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

The presence of Benn, a huge big-play threat, gives wide receiver some muscle. Three-fourths of the starting defensive line return, as well as solid backups who have starting potential. The Illini have three defensive ends who started at least seven games last season. Davis and Hicks are returning starters at cornerback, and Davis was an all-Big Ten selection.

HELP IS NEEDED

Three-year starters Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison completed their eligibility, and the Illini likely will have two sophomores starting at safety. All-American middle linebacker J Leman is gone. Miller likely moves from the outside to try to replace Leman, but could that weaken two positions?

KEEP AN EYE ON

G Jack Cornell Jr.: A former three-star prospect, this redshirt freshman could step in to replace departed All-American guard Martin O’Donnell.

DT Reggie Ellis: A four-star prospect who enrolled early, Ellis reportedly already has added about 20 pounds of muscle and is expected to challenge for a starting role. Getting into the rotation at tackle shouldn’t be a problem.

CB Marcus Thomas: He’s a sophomore who could threaten to take Hicks’ starting role. He came on strong at the end of 2007 and had a key interception in an upset of Ohio State and fared well against USC in the Rose Bowl.

HIS TIME IS NOW

Three years ago, wide receiver Jeff Cumberland arrived in Champaign as a four-star prospect, but he hasn’t been that productive. He has 28 receptions through his first two seasons, but did get 11 of those in the last four games of ’07. He needs to show some consistency.

THE BUZZ

Shoring up the safety spots and finding a big-play guy to replace departed tailback Rashard Mendenhall are vital. But just as important is for someone to take over the leadership roles previously held by Leman, O’Donnell and others who had fought through the lean years. Oh, yeah: Williams improving his passing accuracy would be huge, too.

Rose Bowl the dream of Illini radio voice

The Rose Bowl is personal for Brian Barnhart.

The play-by-play voice of Illinois football and basketball was raised just down the road from Memorial Stadium in Tolono. He was an Illini fan almost from Day One.

Barnhart grew up listening to previous Illinois voices: Larry Stewart, Dick Martin and Jim Turpin. Now he is following in their footsteps by calling Illinois’ biggest football game in 24 years when the Illini face USC in the Rose Bowl on Tuesday. In the Chicago area, Barnhart and former Illinois quarterback Kurt Kittner will have the call on WIND-AM 560.

“This is a dream for any kid from the Midwest,” Barnhart said. “To be the voice of the Illini for this game is a big deal. To me, it is personal. I’m not just working for them. This is my team doing it.”

It took Illinois a long time to get to this point, and Barnhart didn’t exactly take the direct route either. After graduating from Liberty University, he pursued his goal of becoming a major-league baseball announcer. A tour of the minors for more than a decade eventually led to him hooking up with the Anaheim Angels in 1998.

Barnhart spent two years there and then thought he was headed to Montreal to take a position with the Expos. However, it never materialized.

Barnhart decided to move his family back to central Illinois. He worked Illini pregame and postgame for a couple of years.

Then when Turpin decided to retire, athletic director Ron Guenther asked Barnhart if he would be interested in assuming the duties in 2002.

“I never dreamed I’d have this job,” Barnhart said.

The football part of the job hardly was a dream. The Illini went from winning the Big Ten in 2001 to a three-year stretch in which they won only two of 32 conference games. Barnhart suffered through many bleak Saturdays.

Anybody can make a good team sound exciting. It is eminently more difficult with a bad team. Barnhart thinks he was up to the challenge.

“Some of the biggest compliments I received is that people said I still made the games sound enjoyable,” Barnhart said. “I take the same approach regardless of the record. I’m trying to paint a picture, to make the game come alive. Even when they were losing, I knew there were people out there who cared about the Illini.”

It wasn’t all bleak for Barnhart. The basketball team has provided him with many memorable calls, none more so than Illinois’ incredible comeback to beat Arizona in overtime to advance to the Final Four in 2005.

“That game was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” Barnhart said. “That whole year was amazing. I remember thinking before the final, ‘Here I am, a kid from Tolono, getting to do the championship game.’ ”

The football team ended his suffering this year, providing him with a highlight reel of exciting calls. Now in his sixth year as the voice of the Illini, Barnhart feels like he has a home, which turned out to be his home all along. He is looking forward to a long run in Champaign.

“In college sports, people tend to stay longer,” Barnhart said. “The fans get used to hearing their voices. There’s a familiarity on radio that grows over time. I like that.”

The Jan. 1 game won’t be the first one Barnhart has worked from the Rose Bowl. He called a highly forgettable Illini 6-3 loss to UCLA in 2003.

The return trip should be much better.

“There are certain things you want to do as a broadcaster,” Barnhart said. “The Final Four is one of them, and the Rose Bowl is another. Hopefully, another great experience lies ahead.”

•The last time the Illini played in the Rose Bowl, in 1984, the game aired on NBC with Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen on the call. They didn’t have much of a game, as UCLA tore apart the Illini 45-9.

This year, Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit will handle the duties for ABC. Hopefully, Illinois will give them a better game.

Thousands of Illini fans rush for Rose Bowl tickets

For Illini, the rush for Rose Bowl tickets is on.

The University of Illinois says it’s already received 12,000 requests for tickets to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, where the Illini will play Southern California on New Year’s Day.

The surge comes a day after officials picked the Illini to play in their first Rose Bowl since 1984. It’ll be their first bowl for the U of I since 2002.

Illinois will have about 26,000 tickets to sell.

School donors and season-ticket holders will get first crack at them. They have until Friday to put in their requests. Student season-ticket holders have until Wednesday evening.

Any tickets still left go on sale to the public next week.

Read more at the www.bnd.com†


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Samuel Bradford (born November 8, 1987 in Oklahoma City , Oklahoma ) is a quarterback for the Oklahoma Sooners. Bradford is a member of the Cherokee Nation and is one-sixteenth Native American by way of his great-grandmother, Susie Walkingstick, who was a full-blooded Cherokee

How the Rams’ eyes spied Weil

What former Minooka football coach Mike Briscoe saw in high school, former University of Illinois coach Ron Turner nourished and then gave over to current Illinois coach Ron Zook in college. Now it’s time for the St. Louis Rams and perhaps the rest of the NFL to see what Minooka graduate Russ Weil can do on the gridiron.

After playing out his NCAA career for the Illini at the 2008 Rose Bowl, Weil was secretly being coveted by at least one NFL coach who thought he was special. Though with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as their running backs/assistant head coach at the time, Art Valero, who now holds the same title with the Rams, recalls seeing Weil and thinking that he may have the stuff it takes to compete in the NFL.

“What’s incredible is that the college season is at the same time as ours and because of that, you only get glimpses of people during the course of the season while they are on television … I was watching this kid (Weil) and said that’s someone who’s interesting,” Valero said. “I knew he was someone who, once we got to the evaluation process, I needed to keep an eye on and look out for. That’s because not a lot of fullbacks are invited to the combine and you have to go out and find them. They just don’t run the fullback in college offenses anymore.”

Eventually, Valero’s interest in Weil and former Illini running back Rashard Mendenhall (now with the Pittsburgh Steelers) came together at one practice. Mendenhall was getting eyed up for his 1,681 yard, 17 TD running back season and Weil for the job he did in blocking for him.

“I have a couple of friends on the Illinois staff and had the chance to bounce some things off of them and talked about Russ. Then, when I went up to work out Mendenhall and Russ worked out as well,” Valero said. “He caught everything thrown to him, both good balls and bad balls, balls off the ground, balls over his head.”

Ohio State-USC is big, but Fresno State-Wisconsin is football life altering

It’s all you could ask of a Saturday night in September in California — two ranked teams playing in front of a packed house, on national television, with huge bowl implications and possibly a national title at stake.

No. 5 Ohio State at No. 1 USC won’t be bad, either.

Wisconsin at Fresno State is going to get stomped on in terms of build-up, sweeping panoramic backdrops, TV analysts and breathless sideline reporter reports.

I’ve just seen Beanie Wells’ right foot and can confirm it’s still attached to his leg!

ABC1 has one game and ESPN2 has the other.

One is glitter; the other ground chuck.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about this: Which game, in terms of the big picture, is really more football life-altering?

People say college football is great because every week is like a playoff and that one loss — especially late in the season — knocks you out of the national title.

People say a lot of things.

It depends who you are.

If Saturday’s game is close, the USC vs. Ohio State outcome changes nothing. The teams could still meet in the national title game, or in the Rose Bowl.

USC could lose Saturday and not fall out of the top five, while Ohio State’s credibility is so sketchy after Ohio that a close loss to USC might enhance the Buckeyes’ reputation.

Win or lose, USC and Ohio State will campaign into November.

Don’t believe it?

Last year, Ohio State lost at home on Nov. 10 to Illinois, dropped from No. 1 to No. 7 in the Bowl Championship Series rankings, only to climb back to No. 1 in less than a month.

USC, a 41-point favorite over Stanford, suffered one of the worst upset defeats in the history of college football. Yet, the Trojans would have advanced to the national title game had they defeated Oregon in Eugene.

Louisiana State won the national title — after losing its last regular-season game to Arkansas.

In 2001, Nebraska free-loaded into the BCS title game after losing its last regular-season game, 62-36, while in 2003 Oklahoma finished No. 1 in the BCS after getting run off the field by Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game . . . on Dec. 6.

No. 10 Wisconsin and No. 21 Fresno State, by contrast, are working a BCS high-wire without a net.

A loss to Fresno State, a “non-BCS” school, probably knocks Wisconsin out of national title contention.

Brooks shortens his timetable

Kentucky Coach Rich Brooks still has his sights set on guiding UK to the top of the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division.

But now the timetable is shorter than Brooks originally planned.

When Brooks arrived at Kentucky in 2003, he said he hoped to become the longest-tenured coach in Wildcats history. Brooks would need to coach this season and three more after that to surpass Fran Curci’s nine-year run.

But Brooks said at SEC Media Days on Wednesday that he doesn’t expect to be on the sideline long enough to accomplish that feat.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said.

Brooks, who will turn 68 on Aug. 20 and has five grandchildren, didn’t specify how much longer he’ll coach before turning the program over to head coach-in-waiting Joker Phillips.

“The handoff is in waiting and we’ll hand it off when the wait is over,” Brooks said. “I’m not sure exactly when that will be.”

When asked what changed his mind, Brooks said matter-of-factly, “I’ve been going to too many memorial services.”

UK players Trevard Lindley and Zipp Duncan, who attended Wednesday’s Media Days activities with Brooks, said the coach hasn’t changed his approach at all.

“He’s still the same hard-nosed, aggressive coach that he has been,” Duncan said.

But Duncan said sometimes he detects subtle hints that Brooks might be thinking about the end of the road.

“In talking sometimes, you can kind of understand that he’s seen a lot of friends pass,” Duncan said. “He’s been in the business a long time, and he might be about ready to retire. But at the same time, he’s brought these guys in and sold them on the program and he doesn’t want to be a guy that just walks out on them. I feel when the time comes he’ll do it in a respectful manner and people will know and understand why he’s moving on.”

Before he rides off into the sunset, Brooks wants to get the Cats over the proverbial hump. The Wildcats have won three straight bowl games for the first time in school history and have knocked off perennial powers Georgia, Clemson and LSU during that stretch.

Brooks wants more.

“We need to climb the ladder,” Brooks said. “This is not good enough. Going to bowl games and winning them isn’t good enough. We need to compete for the SEC championship.”

Brooks believes the fact that he has cultivated a winning climate the past three years will make it easier to carry the program over the top. When Brooks was at Oregon, his teams hovered around the six- to eight-win range for several years before breaking through with a Rose Bowl bid in 1994.

“I think it makes a significant difference, “You’re always trying to talk to them about what it’s going to take to get to that level,”Brooks said. You’re reaching for a higher star, obviously, in trying to be a team that competes for an SEC championship. When you get to a certain level it’s a lot easier to get to that next level, and I think that’s where we are.”

As for this year’s team, Brooks expects the Cats to make it to their fourth straight bowl game, and he’d also like to knock off even more of the big boys. Florida, Tennessee, and South Carolina are three teams UK has lengthy losing streaks against.

“Realistically, I think we’re a team that should be in the post-season again, I think realistically we should beat some teams that we haven’t beaten in awhile, and we better beat some teams that we haven’t beaten in awhile, because there’s a lot of them on our schedule.”

Duncan said the players want to make sure that whenever Brooks decides to hang it up, he does it on a high note.

“Three bowl games is a start,” Duncan said. “But at the same time, he’s given us all opportunities to come in and play and sold us on the program. The mind-set on the team is definitely to send him out, whenever he wants to go, as a winner and as a coach that Kentucky fans will remember for turning around the program and moving it in the right direction.”

Super Bowl Linebacker Ellison Moves to Front Lines of Star Wars

Riki Ellison, Super Bowl Linebacker

Riki Ellison spent 10 seasons swatting down passes as a linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Raiders.

Today, his interest isn’t defending against National Football League quarterbacks. Rather, it’s nuclear warheads launched at the U.S.

Ellison was finishing college at the University of Southern California in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan outlined his plan for a so-called Star Wars defense, where attacking missiles would be shot down from space before reaching the U.S. The parallel to football was obvious to him.

“Sometimes you play zone defense, other times you play man-to-man, the key is to layer your defense so you can protect your goal line no matter how they attack you,”Ellison, 48, said in an interview. “That’s essentially how a missile defense system works.”

So after a 10-year NFL career that included three Super Bowl championships, Ellison started the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a non-profit organization in Alexandria, Virginia, funded in part by defense contractors.

Ellison’s goal of deploying a system of ground-based interceptors is shared by the Obama administration. Although North Korea’s tests of missiles in recent weeks has been condemned by international leaders, Ellison said Iran — surrounded by U.S. forces on three sides of the country in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan — is still the greatest threat.

Nuclear Weapons

“When they get a nuclear weapon, you will have nine to 10 countries inside the Middle East that will want to nuclearize and another 20 countries outside the Middle East who will want to nuclearize,” he said. “You can have a very unstable situation.”

Such defense systems would benefit companies including Boeing Co.,Raytheon Co., Northrop Grumman Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp. and Orbital Sciences Corp.

At his office, his football past is evident. Jerseys from his days with the 49ers and Raiders are framed and hang from a wall. He keeps pictures of his four children and grandparents on a table just inside his office. In the middle of the table is a Koran; a gift from a visit to the Middle East with the Department of Defense.

New Zealander

Ellison didn’t take the typical path to football stardom. He was born in Christchurch, New Zealand, the son of Dan Ellison, an economics adviser to the United Nations based in Fiji. His mother, now Judith Gray, earned a doctorate degree in modern dance at the University of Arizona.

The couple divorced in 1968, and his mother took her son to Los Angeles where she had received a scholarship from USC.

A year later, Judith remarried, and moved her son to Rimrock, Arizona, where his stepfather had been hired to run a dude ranch and boys school.

The foreman, Marvin Hayes, had been a Sherman tank commander during World War II under General George Patton and became a grandfather figure to Ellison, talking to the boy about the war and introducing him to football.

“I treasured being on the ranch where there were no fences and no one saying you can’t do anything,” Ellison said. “So you are boundless in your ability to dream.”

USC Football

Some of those dreams included football. He accepted an athletic scholarship at USC, where the football team won the national championship when he was a freshman and the 1979 and 1980 Rose Bowls.

When he wasn’t playing football, he pursued his other interests: technology and diplomacy.

He had an internship at the Palo Verde nuclear power plant in Arizona, and studied Soviet foreign policy, arms control and strategic and defensive studies under teachers such as William Van Cleave, the director of Reagan’s transition team for the Defense Department.

In his senior year, he was applying for jobs at the State Department while working out for NFL teams. He said he wasn’t getting good news: After three knee surgeries in college, NFL personnel directors were telling him to forget about pro football.

A former USC teammate intervened. Ronnie Lott, who joined the San Francisco 49ers two years earlier, told coach Bill Walsh that the team should take a chance on Ellison, bad knees and all.

“Riki had this intensity; this desire to succeed that superseded everything he ever did,” Lott, 50, said in a telephone interview.

Fifth-Round Pick

Walsh listened to Lott, who had earned a spot in the Pro Bowl both years he had been on the team, and took Ellison in the fifth round. In seven seasons with the 49ers and three more with the Raiders, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound linebacker made or assisted on 735 tackles, had five quarterback sacks, an interception and seven fumble recoveries.

Ellison lived up to his reputation as driven, Lott said. Once, he got stuck in traffic on the way to a game.

“So he pulled over, left his car on the side of the road and jogged to the stadium to get into the locker room before it was time,”Lott said. “That was Riki.”

During his NFL career, Ellison held internships at Lockheed Martin where he met Edward Teller, who helped develop the first atomic bomb while working on the Manhattan Project and was the force behind Reagan’s missile defense initiative.

Following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, Ellison, a registered lobbyist, formed his organization to work for the deployment of a missile defense system.

It is funded by about 9,000 private donors, defense contractors and others interested in missile defense. He wouldn’t identify them.

“In football, you can’t win by building everything around your offense,” Ellison said. “In the real world, it’s imperative that you keep the opponent from reaching your end zone, even once.”

Berth in Rose Bowl paying off for Illini as far as recruiting

Rockhurst quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase lined up a Who’s Who in July. Sitting on a table, the hats representing Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Illinois also served as the finalists for Scheelhaase, a four-star prospect and a top target in the Midwest.

After leading Rockhurst to the Missouri Class 6 state championship as a junior last season and becoming the first underclassman to win the Simone Award as the Kansas City area’s best football player, Scheelhaase did what’s becoming a growing trend: He grabbed the orange hat and verbally committed to the Illini.

By landing three top 100 national recruits in this year’s senior class before football season began, Illinois coach Ron Zook took advantage of the unexpected berth in the Rose Bowl last season to lay the foundation for a highly ranked class. In his fourth full recruiting season with the Illini, Zook is off to his best start.

“They’ve finished really strong in all the other years,” said national recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. “This is his best start. The Rose Bowl appearance gave them credibility in the eyes of the kids.”

“Illinois recruiting is going fantastic. They’re starting to land the blue-chip athletes on a consistent basis. Their recruiting each year progresses, and the classes keep getting better.”

Zook’s early efforts at Illinois included stars, such as wide receiver Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson, but the classes are getting better from top to bottom, Lemming said. He rated Illinois’ class as No. 13 nationally in 2007 and No. 15 last winter.

A dual-threat quarterback whose father, Nate Creer, played defensive back on Iowa’s Big Ten title team in 1985, Scheelhaase is ranked as the No. 87 recruit nationally in the senior class by Lemming. East St. Louis receivers Kraig Appleton (No. 82) and Terry Hawthorne (No. 97) committed to the Illini earlier this summer.

Rivals.com has Scheelhaase rated as the No. 7 dual-threat quarterback nationwide. The website had Appleton at No. 11 and Hawthorne at No. 18 among receivers, respectively.

With the trip to Pasadena, the Illini have something more to sell than playing time, although a second consecutive berth in a major bowl would help Illinois go after a higher caliber of athlete.

“It would show people we’re becoming more consistent,” said recruiting coordinator Reggie Mitchell. “Recently, it’s been a roller coaster. If we can maintain a level of being competitive and going to bowl games, we’ll be able to hold our own and maybe recruit a different level of kid.”

At this point, Illinois remained a “friends and family” recruiter rather than a true national player. Illinois will rely upon contacts in areas where the recruiters have a history, such as offensive coordinator Mike Locksley in Washington, D.C., line coach Eric Wolford in Ohio, Dan Disch in Jacksonville, Fla., and Mitchell in the St. Louis area.

“The more we get on national TV, the more success we have, that will help us with name recognition,” Mitchell said.

Chicago Morgan Park defensive end Craig Drummond is the state’s top-rated player by Lemming and the only other top 100 recruit inside the state still uncommitted. Lemming has Drummond at No. 36 overall. After scoring a 22 on his ACT, Drummond’s marketability skyrocketed.

Illinois, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Florida, Tennessee, Miami, Southern Cal and Tennessee are among the schools recruiting him. Drummond indicated there is no leader. Otherwise, the Illini might need to go outside the state, although Lemming also called the entire Midwest down.

NOTE: The Rockhurst-Blue Springs (Mo.) South game will be televised on ESPN at 11 a.m. on Aug. 31. The game pits the last two Missouri Class 6 state champs.