One In A Series
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) _ Jeff George took the money and ran, but he left plenty of riches behind at Illinois.
The star quarterback passed up his final year at Illinois for a $15 million contract with the Indianapolis Colts. However, 18 other starters return from a team that capped a 10-2 season with a victory over Virginia in the Citrus Bowl.
″There is no question that there will be life after Jeff George,″ assistant coach Lou Tepper said. ″We’ve still got the basis of a good football team.″
The defense, led by All-American noseguard Moe Gardner, should be one of the nation’s best. Gardner was double and triple-teamed last season, opening holes for other Illini linemen.
″When we play at the top of our game, nobody can move the ball on us,″ said Gardner, a 6-foot-2, 258-pound senior. ″We’re stopping everybody before they even start.″
Other defensive standouts include linebacker Darrick Brownlow, linebacker Mel Agee and the superb secondary of Henry Jones, Marlon Primous, Chris Green and Quintin Parker.
″Our secondary is excellent,″ Coach John Mackovic said. ″It’s talented, intelligent and loaded with hitters.″
The Illinis will lose size as well as stature at quarterback when 5-9, 186- pound Jason Verduzco takes over for George, who was seven inches taller and 25 pounds heavier.
But Mackovic thinks the sophomore quarterback has potential.
″Jason is a terrific competitor and more of a scrambler than Jeff,″ Mackovic said. ″He’ll give us a different dimension.″
Verduzco, who completed 16 of 26 passes for 172 yards in limited action last season, will face a tough early challenge when Illinois opens the season against Arizona and Colorado.
″It’s not the way you’d choose to break in a new quarterback,″ Tepper said.
Top receiver Mike Bellamy is gone but 6-4 senior Shawn Wax, who caught 26 passes last season, gives the Illini a polished pass catcher.
The running game will be led by fullback Howard Griffith, a versatile player who rushed for 747 yards and caught 45 passes last season.
″He’s the best all-around back in the country,″ Mackovic said.
Tepper said the Citrus Bowl victory - Illinois’ first postseason win since the 1964 Rose Bowl - gave the team confidence heading into this season. With their difficult early schedule, the Illini will need all the confidence they can get.
″Arizona will be a real challenge,″ Tepper said. ″If we win that game in Tucson, we’ll be a significant football team.″