Column: ‘Lighting’ gives Illinois a spark

By Darren Bailey

Who would have guessed that one of the highlights of this year’s football season would be a 5-11, 165-pound receiver from little old Mattoon, Ill.? Go ahead, raise your hand if you did. I’d like to give you a gold star for the day. I sure didn’t see it coming. Honestly, I don’t think Kyle Hudson himself saw it happening. In fact, after the offseason coaching change, the player now known by the coaching staff as “White Lightning” wasn’t even sure if he would see himself in orange and blue.

But here he has come, out-leaping, out-thinking, out-running, out-catching, and, frankly, out-working his competitors to make an impact and give a spark to what has been, at times, a stagnant Illini offense. Hudson leads the Illini in three receiving categories – total yards, yards per catch and receiving yards per game.

The question then raised, “How is this once-unheralded recruit accomplishing these feats?”

Well, I mentioned the leaping; Hudson won the Illinois state title as a high school junior with a high jump of 6-10.

There’s also the speed factor. He boasts a personal best of 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash. For those of you that don’t know, that’s blisteringly fast.

But that’s not what sets Hudson apart from other Illini receivers and other players around the nation. No, what he has is far greater than that. It’s heart. It’s determination. It’s a chip on his shoulder. It’s freshman stupidity. It’s something that the Illinois football team could use more of.

Yes, it’s time to get the young guys on the field. They don’t know that Illinois is “supposed” to lose. They come out every day expecting to compete, to win and to give it their all every snap.

Illinois football has a proud and impressive history. It claims two of the greatest players of all time – Red Grange and Dick Butkus – but has had great players more recently than that. Anyone heard of Dana Howard, Kevin Hardy, or John Holecek? How about Brad Hopkins or Ken Dilger? Simeon Rice, more commonly known as being from “Playa U” or the “School of Hard Knocks” is actually another former Illini. Shoot – Kurt Kittner and Brandon Lloyd. They were part of a Big Ten Championship, and that was only four years ago in 2001.

Unfortunately, a recent lack of success has eroded both a strong fan base, and more importantly, any sense of a winning mentality. Too many upperclassmen have forgotten what winning feels like. When wheels start to wobble, those players expect them to come off.

Instead of waiting for the bandwagon to crash, Hudson is going to get on the ground with his ratchet. So is Brit Miller, another central Illinois boy who knows he has to prove himself every play of everyday – be it practice or game. That’s where the chip on the shoulder comes in. Downstate guys can’t play football, can they? Even the Chicago players – they’re from Illinois. Illinois doesn’t produce athletes. Forget that Thornton High School on the south side of Chicago just recently fell to number two in the nation in number of alums in the NFL; they held the top spot for several years.

Players come from all over, and Ron Zook and Co. know that. They’ll go wherever they must to get players who want to play football. Players with heart, dedication and a will to win.

I’ve said this to many people, and I’ll say it again now that I have my own personal soap box: A coach cannot instill a winning tradition overnight or in one season. However, he can, and in this case must, instill a winning mentality.

Some upperclassmen were given a new shot this fall. Some of them stepped up, some of them didn’t. Those that didn’t must be thanked for their years of service to the program and this University, and then be replaced by players who are begging for the chance to show what they can do, how hard they’ll work and how much they want to win.

Sparks can come from anywhere – seniors, juniors, sophomores and even freshman. Just ask “White Lightning” – so far, the brightest spark of them all.

Darren Bailey is a junior in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected]