When a team goes 1-11 and doesn't win a game against a Division 1 opponent, it's hard to find someone that you can call the team's most valuable player. That was definitely the case this year for the Fighting Illini. But, two players exceeded expectations and stood out the most for Ron Turner's team this year and that's why wide receiver Mark Kornfeld and Ibrahim Halsey were named co-MVP's for the 2003 Illinois football team by Illini Nation.
With the majority of last year's receivers moving on to the NFL, Illini fans wondered who would catch passes for the team this year. The main receivers that were being talked about were Ade Adeyamo and newcomers Kelvin Hayden and Lonnie Hurst. While those players all went down with injuries, a converted QB stepped up and proved to be a reliable set of hands for all 12 games.
Mark Kornfeld joined the Illini as a quarterback, but was buried on the depth chart. Before the 2002 season, Kornfeld went to Turner and asked to be switched to wide receiver, so he could play instead of signaling in plays from the sideline as a backup quarterback. Kornfeld had a natural ability at the position and looked like he had been playing their all of his life.
Kornfeld's main strength was his ability to catch almost any pass thrown in his general vicinity. Plus, most of his catches came in the middle of the field, where receivers know that big hits from linebackers and defensive backs are waiting on them. The only negative for Mark was his lack of breakaway speed, which kept him from being able to run away from defenders and go for deep passes.
On the season, Kornfeld caught 44 passes for 527 yards and an average of 12 yards per catch. The St. Louis, Mo native found the endzone 3 times and his longest catch was a 32-yard gain.
True freshman Ibrahim "E.B." Halsey made an impact in his first season wearing the orange and blue for the Illini. Unfortunately, the promising talent had his season cut short to only nine games due to an injury. Halsey was named Rookie of the Year at the annual Illinois football awards banquet.
But, in those nine games, Halsey made quite an impact on the Illinois faithful. He made his mark in his first collegiate game, toting the ball for 134 yards against Mizzou. Halsey became the first player in Illinois history to gain over 100 yards rushing in their first contest.
Halsey proved to be a real triple threat by excelling in rushing, receiving and special teams for Illinois. E.B. carried the ball 140 times for 525 yards, with 2 touchdowns. Halsey also caught 37 passes for 303 yards and 4 touchdowns. On special teams, Halsey returned 8 punts for 79 yards with 1 touchdown and fielded 16 kickoffs for 378 yards.
With these stats through 9 games, it makes you wonder what he will do when he plays a full season.
It should be noted that at the Illini football banquet, defensive end Derrick Strong took home the team's MVP award.
I asked some of the other members of the Illini Nation staff for their thoughts on who should be this year's MVP.
Kedric Prince: "The one thing that stands out about Kornfeld is it didn't matter, out patterns, screen patterns, he made plays. No wide receiver likes to go over the middle, but this kid did that and held onto the ball. What a nice surprise he was this year."
Michael Bates: "I would give it to E.B. Halsey. When he was in the game, he was a difference maker in some way. He did it all including rushing, receiving and special teams. One of the best freshman ever at Illinois."
John Brumbaugh: "To be honest, I do not think I can say that there is really an MVP this year. People like Kornfeld and Halsey played great and better than expected, but when a team goes 1-11, it is hard to find anyone that truly stood out. I guess if I had to pick one person it would be E.B. I think he would have been a lock for the MVP, but being out with the injury made him lose some stature to me."
#19 Mark Kornfeld
#26 E.B. Halsey