Burly Smith Now The Illini Fullback

You have to be unique to play fullback. You have to be strong and aggressive enough to block linebackers and defensive linemen, fast enough to lead running backs through holes, and willing to sacrifice personal glory. The Illini may have found a good one in Rahkeem Smith.

Two days before the start of Camp Rantoul last fall, Rahkeem Smith was a reserve linebacker. The 6'-1", 250 pounder was a star linebacker at Willowbrook high school and later at Hargrave Military Academy. In fact, Scout.com rated him as the ninth-best prep player at Hargrave. But when running back coach Reggie Mitchell gauged his interest in moving to fullback, Rahkeem jumped at the chance.

"I was just excited to play. I had an opportunity to get onto the field earlier. I was in back of Brit Miller and Sam Carson (at linebacker), so when Coach Mitchell gave me an offer, I couldn't refuse. It was like, "You're gonna play."

Smith was versatile in high school. He just loves to play football and doesn't care where.

"I was a running back in high school. I went to prep school as a linebacker, but in high school I played both. I was just an athlete in high school. Special teams, offense, defense, wherever they want to put me, I'm there."

He received a crash course in the fullback spot as he became the primary backup for senior Russ Weil. Without the benefit of spring ball, he had a lot to learn in a short time.

"They sort of packaged up for me. They had me do the power stuff mostly. They split it up so it was mostly stuff I'm good at. I learned other stuff toward the end of the season."

Smith had a great role model in Weil, who will likely latch onto a pro team this year.

"Russ Weil is a big, athletic monster. He's one of the most tenacious dudes I've ever met. He has great instinct for the game, like filling gaps. And his blocking is so intense, it's fun to watch. Watching Rashard (Mendenhall) and Russ in practice, me and Darius (Purcell) have a lot to live up to.

"Me and Russ were roommates when we traveled. I'm always at his house hanging out. Most of the stuff I knew last fall, he taught me like 101 in college. He's a good role model."

Rahkeem appears to have an aptitude for catching the ball, and he hopes someday to confuse a defense with a run or two from the fullback spot. But he will wait patiently for his turn.

"Yeah, catching a pass, getting to run. My job right now is to block and maybe catch a pass. I caught a pass against Northwestern, and that was enough for me."

Smith had built up his body quite well by the time he entered prep school. He confirmed a rumor about one of his exploits there.

Coach (Curt) Mallory came to visit me at Hargrave. I still had my (military) uniform on, so I popped my hat off, loosened up my tie, and did 31 reps at 225 pounds.

Despite early work on his own, he now gets enough of a workout by following Coach Lou Hernandez' s prescription for him.

"I roll with Lou. I do extra running on my own, but I don't do too much extra lifting on my own."

Redshirt freshman Darius Purcell has been moved to fullback/running back, so he and walkon Nick LeVanti are the only others available to share the workload during practices. But Rahkeem is hungry to learn and doesn't mind the extra work.

"Me and Oh-Oh (Michael Hoomanawanui) hang out a lot. With a tight end or fullback, one of us is going in. I still have some small things to work out on the learning side of the game, so like Coach Mitchell said, I take all the reps I can get. Today I took the reps for the ones and the twos so I can get better."

Rahkeem Smith is a junior with two years of eligibility remaining, so don't be surprised to see him becoming a force in Illinois' running game as he gains maturity and experience.

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