MARK TUPPER: Illini football may find success in smaller players
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MARK TUPPER: Illini football may find success in smaller players

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CHAMPAIGN — While Illini Nation is busy celebrating Ayo Dosunmu’s decision to go all-in on lifting Illini basketball back into the NCAA Tournament, a cluster of pint-sized football fighter jets are circling in the distance.

Basketball first. Dosunmu’s declaration that he won’t bother with the NBA Draft this year came as a surprise, only because they’ve made it easy for players to go through this investigative process and receive free feedback from the league.

But his decision, announced Thursday in a video posted on Twitter, was music to the ears of an Illini fan base wanting to move past the internal investigation into Brad Underwood’s coaching methods, past the wait for Kofi Cockburn to sign his letter of intent and past the recently concluded NCAA Tournament that once again failed to include the Illini on its 68-team invitation list.

Everyone is ready for the Illini basketball narrative to change and Ayo said he’s going to change it. Suddenly, his legacy in orange and blue looks very much on track.

Now for football.

Standing in the end zone during last weekend’s spring game, I was within a few feet of former Illini defensive lineman Jihad Ward, now an employee of the Indianapolis Colts. Rigidly sculpted at 6-foot-5, 290 pounds, he’s a big dude.

Not far away was current Illini offensive tackle, Vederian Lowe. Another big fella at 6-6, 315. And over there was Luke Ford, the transfer tight end from Georgia. He’s no dinky guy at 6-6, 250.

Football – as always – is a gathering of giants.

But not entirely, and a new trend lighting up the National Football League and making its way into the college game, is finding a roster spot for fleas who know how to flicker.

In that same end zone stood Isaiah Williams, the most heralded Illini football recruit in years. He might well be the quarterback of the future and if he lights a fuse in August he might be the quarterback of the present.

He is listed at 5-foot-10, 170 pounds. Because his hair includes a great deal of architecture, I can’t tell if 5-10 is accurate. Let’s say it is. Either way, he looks out of place amid these other massive humans.

Ditto for Jakari Norwood, a redshirt freshman running back listed at 5-10, 185. He flashed his elite speed and ran 52 yards for a touchdown in the recent spring game.

Tupper: Illinois' value could soar with some success

Same for Carlos Sandy, an Illini receiver/return specialist listed at 5-9, 175. And for Dominic Stampley, whose 84-yard touchdown catch against Maryland last season was the third longest in Illini history. He’s all of 5-10, 175 pounds.

Soon to arrive will be freshman running back Kyron Cumby from the state of Texas. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.36 seconds, which makes him a baby blur at 5-8, 175.

Can this work for the Illini in a world populated largely by much bigger athletes?

Based on what the NFL is doing, yes, it can work. But it takes toughness from the player and a creative mind from the play-designer.

Look at the Chicago Bears and their use of Tarik Cohen. He played receiver, running back and punt returner and landed in the Pro Bowl. And he is listed at 5-foot-6, 181 pounds. Starting Bears’ wide receiver Taylor Gabriel is listed at 5-8, 165. In each case, they can motor away from bigger defenders.

And when the NFL Draft unfolds later this week, Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Kyler Murray may go No. 1 overall. He’s a 5-foot-10 quarterback.

In almost any sport, there has always been a role for an athlete with breathtaking speed and the instincts to outmaneuver the opposition.

Early in my career at the Herald & Review, I remember Carl Spence of MacArthur High School. He was one of those mighty mites who had the speed and wiggle to dazzle.

Now Lovie Smith has brought in a handful of undersized play-makers who just might turn a 7-yard gain into a 70-yard touchdown.

Keep an eye on Isaiah Williams and Kyron Cumby at Illini training camp this August. Fast guys are always fun to watch. And football is figuring out that those big guys can’t always catch them.

Mark Tupper is the retired executive sports editor of the Herald & Review. He can be reached at


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