Fiesty Steele Ready for Senior Season

Add Antonio Steele to the list of Illinois football players that feel they have a score to settle with some fellow Big Ten members. And as the Illini get closer and closer to playing games that count, he can't wait to have the rest of the nation -- and the league -- to see the latest version of the team.

Coming off last year's 2-10 season that included seven losses by 11 points or less (four of which were by a touchdown or less), Steele recalls the exasperating feelings that he and his teammates felt each time they lost one of the close games.

"It was a frustrating year with all the close losses," the senior ‘backer said. "What made it so frustrating was that we were winning some of those close games, but at the end, we'd just lose our concentration, fall apart and end up with a loss. But we also now realize that we can play with the big guys.

"This year if we have the lead, I think we'll be more mature and will have a better opportunity to hang on to that lead and win the game."

Steele will play a key role in the Illini's quest to shut down opposing offenses. He started all 12 games a year ago at one of the outside linebacker spots and finished 10th in the conference in total tackles and tackles per game (7.1). He had two games in which he recorded double-digit stops, posting 12 tackles against Rutgers and 11 in the season finale against Northwestern.

It was Steele's first action with the Illini following two seasons of play at Long Beach City College. Undersized coming out of high school in Cleveland and without any Division 1 offers, Steele followed the route of his brother, Markus who went to LBCC before moving on to Southern California (1999-2001). The elder Steele eventually went on and played three seasons in the NFL with the Denver Broncos and Dallas Cowboys.

The younger Steele worked hard in his two seasons at the junior college level and after his second season, he spurned offers from Mississippi and Texas A&M to enroll at Illinois.

At 6-2, 215 pounds, Steele is often questioned whether he's big enough to play as a linebacker in the physical Big Ten Conference. He downplays the notion that size is the most important aspect of playing in the Big Ten.

"You've got to be kind of a rough linebacker to play in this league," he said. "I feel I have that toughness to play at this level. Last year I played at 205 but I've gained 10 pounds and feel stronger this year. Sure I could go up another 10 or so and be 225, 230, but I'd still be known as a small linebacker.

"I want to keep my speed so I think this is a good size for me. Now-a-days, teams like to spread the offense so you better have speed in order to get to the ball carrier. Speed and toughness…I'll take those two over size any time."

As for settling the score with some of the Illini's conference brethren, Steele says this year's club has talked about it during the offseason and now is the time to let their actions speak louder than their words.

"Every team is kind of a payback for us," he said. "We're not upset about last year's performance because we know we got better. We don't have it out just for one team, we have it out for the whole season.

"Our goal is to get to a bowl game at the end of the season so we need at least seven wins. And that means paying back some teams from a year ago with a win over them this year."

Illini Inquirer Top Stories