Did Illini Find A Diamond In Florida?

All major colleges try to recruit 5-star athletes. But most of each team's recruiting class consists of talented prospects with less national recognition. All college recruiters are looking for a diamond in the rough who blossoms into a college star. The Illini may have found one in an athlete from Florida.

Erick Hayward has been overlooked on his Orange Park, Florida, high school football team. That is, until Illinois coach Paul Petrino came for a visit. He was drawn to the big, speedy running back and offered him a scholarship.

"That was my first offer. I was pretty excited. I've never been there before, but it's a good college it seems."

Hayward hasn't had a chance to get well acquainted with Petrino yet, but his first impression was good.

"Coach Petrino seems like a pretty good coach. He's down to earth. He reminds me of Coach (Danny) Green, my head football coach."

The Orange Park football team boasted several excellent running backs last year, including Karl Barr and Kris Riley. But Hayward saw enough action to accumulate 80 yards rushing in 13 carries against Bartram Trail, 74 yards in 3 carries against Ridgeview, and 73 yards in 3 carries against Middleburg. He also scored on a 66 yard run to help Orange Park to its third straight district championship.

Hayward played a complimentary role on both sides of the field last season.

"On defense, I play linebacker and defensive end. On offense, I play running back."

Petrino sees a future stud in the making. At 6'-2", 215, Hayward runs a 4.48 forty yard dash.

"I love running back. We have good running backs, but I made the most of my carries. I'm a big power back, but if they need me to make a move, I can take one here and there."

Being taller than most running backs requires an adjustment.

"That makes it a little bit harder, especially when they try to take me out with my legs. But I've adapted to it."

Hayward also has promise defensively.

"I'm being moved to linebacker this year. I'm still adapting, but I did pretty good in our spring game."

Hayward's first reaction to the Illini offer was to commit on the spot.

"I've talked to other colleges, but no one else has offered me yet. I've talked to Notre Dame, Duke and Syracuse. I was talking about going there, as I was actually pretty excited about the offer. But I decided to wait."

He expects to be busy this summer checking out different schools. He hopes to make it to Champaign.

"During the summer time, I plan to do a lot of visiting. So far, the only college campus I've been to is FSU for a Nike camp.

"I can try to make it up to Illinois. My mom's boyfriend said he can help me do whatever I need to do. He played at Alabama, so if I need to travel, he said I can. I'm gonna try hard to make it to Illinois for a visit."

What is he looking for in a college?

"Most likely, the atmosphere and how I feel about it. How I like the coaching staff if I go there."

Academics is also important to him, and Illinois meets his needs in that regard.

"I want to major in computer technology. I get good grades; you've got to be pretty smart to do that."

The athletic Hayward can play other sports, but football is his ticket to college.

"I used to play basketball. I was a cheerleader, and I did weight lifting. But football is my sport."

Hayward hopes to lead Orange Park to another good season this fall.

"We lost a lot of seniors. But based on the spring game, I'm pretty sure we're gonna do all right."

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