Jack Ramsey Settles In At Cornerback

Versatile football players are in great demand at the college level. With only 85 scholarship players and attrition due to a lengthy, rigorous schedule, colleges need players who can play multiple positions to add depth. Jack Ramsey is that type of player for the Illini, but uncertainty over his best position threatened to cause as many problems as it solved.

Jack Ramsey came to Illinois as a wide receiver, and he expected to remain there his entire college career. However, injuries just before the start of the 2010 season necessitated a change.

"Coach (Ron) Zook asked me if I felt like playing defense. We'd had some losses. Terry (Hawthorne) went down, Supo (Sanni) went down, and I played defense in high school. I told him I'd be glad to help the team. We needed somebody to step up. Coach told me to learn to step up, so that's what I'm trying to do."

Just as media prepared a story on his conversion to cornerback, he moved back to offense briefly and later returned to defense. The position uncertainty and lack of playing time made him consider a transfer. However, Coach Zook helped him get a new lease on life by involving him in the Texas Bowl victory.

"I played on the kickoff coverage team. I had quitting in my head because I wasn't happy. Coach Zook gave me the chance to be on the kickoff coverage team, and I did that."

Ramsey is now content at boundary corner. It wasn't entirely new to him.

"I played cornerback in high school. I had a couple of offers at corner at Kansas State and Michigan State. So I'm kind of familiar with it. I've just got to get my rhythm back and try to make tackles.

"It's not easy because I hadn't tackled nobody in three years. In the boundary, you've got to be physical and come up and play the run. That's the biggest step I've got to take, learn how to tackle."

Physicality is part of Ramsey's game, so he is adapting readily.

"I'm a physical player. I was always taught to play football physical. When I go against a tall receiver like Anthony Williams, I come up and use press coverage because he's so big. Then I try to play off at times to try to confuse him."

His receiver background helps him understand his opponents better.

"It's coming along well. It's a learning process. I've been playing receiver for three years, and I've just got to translate that to help me play defensive back.

"When I'm going against man-to-man, I know the type of moves they work on, so it's to my advantage. I try not to do that because when I'm working against another receiver, he's not gonna be doing the same releases or how he comes off the ball. So I just work on the technique that Coach teaches me."

The Chicago Simeon product in learning a great deal from new secondary coach Mike Gillhamer.

"He's a great coach. We learn every day from him. Every day, he's got something new. It's a learning process.

"He likes us keeping our shoulders down, don't be too high on the backpedal. We don't want the receivers to catch the ball. Every time they get their hands on it, we want to cause turnovers.

"He wants us to go after the ball, no matter whether they catch it. He wants us to pick it up and run to the end zone. He wants us to get after the ball."

Ramsey feels the Illini defense will have a good 2011 season.

"We look good. We've just got to keep running to the ball, not make MA's (missed assignments) and stay focused as a group."

Staying focused is essential for a punt returner, another of Ramsey's tasks. He fumbled in a game last fall and was replaced for a few games. He believes those problems are behind him.

"It's coming. Right now, I'm trying to learn everything on defense and work my skills on punt returns. Last year, my head wasn't in the game when the ball came down. I've got to focus on the ball, and everything else will come along.

"Coach Zook knows I never drop punts in practice. When I had the three fumbles at Penn State, I was going through something. But I don't use that as an excuse. Coach Zook knows that I'm a competitor. Every time I get down, I come right back up. He didn't lose confidence in me and gave me a chance. That's a good thing."

Zook encouraged studying opponent punters, and it helped.

"It's kind of hard because of timing. Some kickers don't kick it real high, but you've just got to adjust to it. Coach Zook tells me to go into the film room before each game to see what the punter does. Toward the end, I started getting it. I didn't drop as many punts because I was used to seeing what they were doing."

It's been awhile since the Illini enjoyed long punt returns. Game strategy influences return opportunities. There are times when he is told to fair catch the ball.

"Sometimes. We want a punt team that's aggressive. Coach Zook is an aggressive guy and likes to go for the block. If we see a team we can return on, he'll call a punt return all the time. So it goes back and forth."

Another factor is the type of punt formation used. Illinois is one of a large number of teams that have gone to a three-blocker backfield. Players at the line of scrimmage brush their opponents and then speed downfield to prevent a return. The punt returner is outnumbered in these instances.

"It's hard. When they try to hold up punts, that's an easy return because you don't have a lot of people coming to you. But when they go after the ball, it's hard. You only have two blockers, and there's 4-5 people coming down. It's hard to judge the ball and see those guys. So I have to have confidence in a fair catch no matter what."

Illini Nation demands a punt return score. Ramsey, who has quickness and moves in the open field, wants that also.

"I'm gonna try to get it."

Finally settled in and comfortable in his role, Ramsey is excited about the upcoming season. The Texas Bowl victory was a big part of that.

"I think it was a huge confidence-builder. We hadn't been to a bowl in so long. With the new coaches, we won a bowl game. That can build up so we can try to win more bowl games.

"We're fired up. We know we can be good, we've just got to come out and play on Saturday."

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