Freshman Lankford Showing Speed At WR

Football fans sometimes place too much emphasis on heights and weights. Sometimes heart and determination overcomes deficiencies in other areas. Illinois freshman receiver Ryan Lankford is a good example. He is extremely slender, but he makes up for it in other ways. He is seeing time early and has breakaway potential.

Ryan Lankford doesn't play or talk like a freshman. The product of the small Paxson School in Jacksonville, Florida, came to Illinois with little acclaim except tremendous speed. But he quickly proved ready for the college game according to head coach Ron Zook.

"We played Ryan Lankford. We've got to get the ball in his hands. He's got a lot of speed."

Lankford may be the fastest player on the team, but he also has good hands and is smart enough to learn the offense quickly. He is not overwhelmed by the transition from high school.

"I'm feeling good. It's a big difference from high school, but I have the ability to keep up with everybody. I'm keeping up with the offense very well. I've been in the playbook a lot."

He was glad to get his first catch against SIU.

"I felt good. It's always been a dream of mine to play football at the next level. It's finally here, and I finally got to show what I can do. It was good to get the first catch jitters out of the way. Now I can really get down and start playing football."

Lankford wasn't concerned about getting into the game. He just wasn't certain when his time would come.

"They didn't really say anything, they just told me to always be ready and I wouldn't redshirt this year. I always knew the next play might be my play. I've always got to be ready, know what's coming up next, and when my number's called go out there and make a play."

Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is happy to have Lankford as a weapon in his offense.

"Lankford poses threats to the opposing defense with his speed. He was able to get in late in the (SIU) game and catch his first pass. It's always nice to get it out of the way."

There were doubts how well the 5'-11", 160 pounder would hold up to the pounding from large college players, but he isn't intimidated.

"Of course I'd like to have a little bit more weight, but it makes me work harder knowing that I am one of the smaller guys. Maybe I can work on my speed, work on my quickness, work on my hands so I can have an edge other than in the weight department. I think about it, but I don't really think about it."

Scheelhaase is also impressed with Lankford's ability to block downfield.

"He's been playing hard. He's undersized, but he really will get out there and block. He's not afraid to stick his nose in there."

Lankford explains that blocking isn't dependent only on size and strength.

"It's technique and heart. It's a game of leverage, so if you can get better leverage than your opponent, you'll always be better than him."

The Floridian was a one-man band for his high school team.

"In high school I did punting, kicking, running kicks back, quarterback, wide receiver. Just about everything except offensive line."

That helps explain how he was also able to adjust to his special teams assignments.

"I am on punt block, and I'm a backup punter."

Perhaps having a talented, experienced father has given the youngster an edge going into college.

"He played defensive back for the Miami Dolphins. He's given me a lot of help along the way. Good information. His biggest piece of advice is to always do your best. Never back down. If you have a problem, work on it. Get better every day."

The Paxson School may not field a championship football team, but the academics have prepared him well for college.

"I think my school being academically focused will help me out a lot. Having taken a couple AP (advanced placement) classes since my sophomore year helps me out."

Being away from home and accepting the pressures of college both in the classroom and on the football field are hard enough for most freshmen, but Lankford will also have to adjust to a different climate. Again, he seems mature enough to handle all eventualities.

"I think when it gets a little colder I'll start to realize. Down in Florida we have 52 winter, up here we'll have 10 winter. I've never experienced 10 degrees, so we'll see how it goes. Snow will be new to me. I may like it more than the heat. You never know, there's a chance I might."

Lankford is likely to make many Illini fans happy before he completes his college career. Certainly Scheelhaase thinks so.

"I'm looking forward to him getting more and more experience. He really has a bright future ahead of him."

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