One In A Series
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) _ Illinois quarterback Jason Verduzco clearly is no carbon copy of Jeff George, but Coach John Mackovic can live with that.
After all, Mackovic still has a versatile running attack and one of the best defenses.
But, George’s early departure to the NFL and a $15 million contract with the Indianapolis Colts left backup Verduzco as the likely starter this season.
″He doesn’t need to be Jeff George ... just the best Jason Verduzco,″ said Mackovic. ″We definately need for him to be a high-percentage passer.″
Eighteen starters return from from a team that finished last season 10-2 with a victory over Virginia in the Citrus Bowl.
The key question will be the quarterback situation.
″I don’t feel a lot of pressure because it’s not a one-man team - it takes all of us to win,″ said Verduzco, who completed 16 of 26 passes for 172 yards in 1989. ″You’ll see the same basic Illinois offense with maybe a few new wrinkles.″
At 5-foot-9, 185-pounds, Verduzco is seven inches shorter and 25 pounds lighter than George. But, Mackovic said his sophomore quarterback is ″more of a scrambler″ and has potential.
″I think you’ll see a little more play-action with Jason,″ said Mackovic. ″But, if he can go straight back, find the man and get the ball to him, fine.″
Fullback Howard Griffith, who rushed for 747 yards and caught 45 passes last season, will lead the running game. Mackovic calls him ″the best all- around back in the country.″
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.
″He is one of the best clutch receivers ... tough but not a speed demon,″ said Mackovic.
The defense will be led by All-America noseguard Moe Gardner, who was double- and triple-teamed last season, opening holes for other linemen.
″When we play at the top of our game, nobody can move the ball on us,″ said Gardner, a 6-2, 258-pound senior.
Other defensive standouts include linebackers Darrick Brownlow and Mel Agee and defensive backs Henry Jones, Marlon Primous and Quintin Parker. The other scheduled starter in the secondary, Chris Green, broke his leg in a preseason scrimmage and will miss at least half the season.
″We’ll miss Jeff George but I don’t think it will put any more pressure on us,″ said Agee, a 6-4, 284-pound senior. ″We’ll have to play the run a little better ... stop those big backs.″
The Citrus Bowl victory - Illinois’ first postseason win since the 1964 Rose Bowl - gives the team confidence heading into this season, said placekicker Doug Higgins.
″That’s really carried over,″ Higgins said.
The Illini will need the confidence with an early schedule that includes highly rated Arizona and Colorado.
″Those two teams will tell you how you’re going to play in the Big Ten,″ Mackovic said.