Cumberland Emerges as Big Play Threat

The Fighting Illini football team enjoyed a banner year, and many people contributed to the success. The team improved as the season went along as young players gained maturity and received opportunities. One invaluable asset was the development of Jeff Cumberland.

Cumberland was in a funk early in the year. He was struggling as a tight end and found himself receiving less and less playing time. Halfway through the season, he asked for and received permission to switch to wide receiver. That appears to have been a career-changing moment for Jeff.

The 6'-5", 245 pound Cumberland is an uncommon athlete. Despite his size, Jeff has amazing speed and leaping ability. He participated in the Ohio high school 100 meter dash finals, and he won a local Gus Macker basketball slam dunk contest last summer. He is built like a tight end but has the athleticism of a much smaller man.

He was recruited as a tight end, and Illinois needs tight ends. But Jeff was much happier when moved to receiver. You could see an immediate change in his attitude as he began to work harder and concentrate more on catching the ball. With the work came more trust from the coaching staff, as he explains.

"I got to switch from tight end to X receiver, and we're winning games. I started getting a lot of reps and started getting the ball thrown to me, so that felt pretty good. I always wanted to play outside receiver, and I got the chance. I've been working on catching the ball a lot more, looking the ball in and things like that. That helped a little bit."

Cumberland wants to look to the future rather than dwell on past problems.

"I really don't look back. I knew my situation would help me as a player and a person. I knew what I had to do to work hard and things like that so I could get on the field. I always knew that I could be a go-to guy, and now that I have the chance I can show that I can catch the ball and score touchdowns. Do everything a receiver is supposed to do."

Jeff caught nine passes on the year, but eight of those came in the last three games. For the season, he gained 206 yards receiving, an average of 22.9 yards per catch, and he scored three touchdowns. He ran twice on reverses, gaining 42 impressive yards.

His two great catches on one drive against Northwestern, the second one ending in a touchdown as he broke two tackles and drove a third man into the endzone with him, cemented his position on the team and gave Illini fans visions of superstardom for his future.

Jeff is now an intriguing counterbalance to freshman star Arrelious Benn and helps deflect some of the defensive attention Benn receives. And his size and speed make him a scary sight to opposing defenses on reverse runs. He also believes his recent success will propel him into a positive future.

"Yeah, the bowl game and then next season do it every game."

Cumberland had no catches in the Ohio State game, taking his eye off the ball too quickly on his one opportunity.

"I was kind of frustrated with the drop. I had it in my hand but I tried to run without looking the ball in."

He would have loved to play well at Ohio State as he grew up in Columbus, but he'll take the win any day.

"It felt good to win. I don't think I played second half, but everything works out for a reason. We went out there and played hard and did good. Everyone was kind of upset when I went home on break."

Speaking before Illinois' bowl destination was announced, Jeff expressed no preference.

"Going from 2-10 to 9-3 is a big change so we'll take what we can get. We wanted to go through the whole season undefeated and be Big Ten champs. We didn't get that, but we beat the Big Ten champs. It gives us something to work for next year."

With a little more work and normal maturation, Jeff has a bright future indeed.

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