Although he is a sophomore, Kendrick Jones can claim seniority over his fellow wide receivers.
Jones is the only receiver on the Illinois team who has caught a pass in a game. He had one reception for 12 yards against Indiana in 2002.
Jones, though, is third on Illinois’ depth chart. The Illini’s starting wide receivers have zero experience entering their game against Missouri on Saturday in St. Louis.
The Tigers’ defensive backs said not knowing much about whom they’re going to cover is a disadvantage for them.
“We’re more worried about it, because we don’t have any film to see how these guys really are,” Missouri senior cornerback Michael Harden said. “We’re going in there kind of blinded.”
It might be the blind competing against the blind. MU’s secondary doesn’t have much more experience. Two starters, Harden and outside safety Jason Simpson, return. Reserve cornerback Marcus King also started seven games in 2002.
“We’re not going to sit back and say, ‘Well, we’re young, and that’s an excuse,”’ Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said.
Redshirt freshman Dedrick Harrington (outside safety), junior college transfer Nino Williams (free safety) and sophomore Calvin Washington (cornerback) are the Tigers’ other starters in the secondary.
For the Illini, junior Kelvin Hayden and freshman Lonnie Hurst will start at receiver, and converted quarterback Mark Kornfeld also will play.
“I kind of see it as a kind of advantage I have over them because it’s going to be new to them, too,” Washington said.
Although they have no Division I experience, Williams and Hayden had impressive junior college careers. Hayden was the junior college offensive player of the year at Joliet (Ill.) Junior College in 2002, and was named The Sporting News Preseason Big 10 Newcomer of the Year. Williams was an All-American at Tyler (Texas) Junior College.
“Experience, no experience, we’ve just got to go out and do what we were coached to do day in and day out,” Williams said. “The focus isn’t on what Illinois has, it’s what we have to do.”
Hurst, 6-feet-3, 192 pounds, was a SuperPrep high school All-American, and PrepStar Magazine rated him one of the two best receiver recruits in the Midwest.
“Between those two receivers, and I’m pretty sure they’ve got a host of a lot more of them, we’re not going to take anyone lightly,” Harden said.
A year ago, the Illini receivers and the Tigers backfield were in different situations. Illinois led the Big Ten with 282.3 yards per game passing, and receiver Brandon Lloyd was named to the All-Big 10 team. The Tigers’ pass defense ranked 113th of 117.
Although Harrington, Williams and Washington haven’t started a game for the Tigers, coaches have high expectations for them. Harrington was highly recruited out of Mexico (Mo.) High, and Washington played a year on special teams but redshirted last season to gain maturity. Knowing their talents makes Pinkel a little wary of Illinois’ new faces.
“You think, ‘Oh great, they only have so many starters coming back,’ but then you find out that maybe some of the starters they have coming back are better than the ones they were playing with a year ago,” Pinkel said.
Illinois coach Ron Turner said preseason practices went well for his inexperienced receivers.
“We’ve got some guys who can play and are doing good things in practice, but I’m anxious to get out there on Saturday and see how they respond on game day in that situation and that type of environment,” Turner said.