Tough Guy Purcell Now A Force On Offense

Illinois football coaches were looking for help in the offensive backfield, so after one day of spring practice they turned to redshirt freshman Darius Purcell. Recruited as a safety, Purcell was willing to give it a try. Now, after flashing good skills at the Lemont scrimmage, Coach Ron Zook thinks the move is permanent.

"Yeah, I think so. We needed a tough guy, a fullback-type guy, and he turned out to be a better runner than we originally thought. I still think he could be a good defensive back, but that's one position we've got a few players there. He was more than willing to do it, and he's done a great job. He's got to take care of the football, but Reggie (Mitchell) will get him straight."

Purcell describes the whirlwind changes occurring this spring in his football career.

"I moved the second practice. I agreed to it overnight. Coach talked with me over the phone about it. The next day, he just told me to come in the running back meeting room. They had a white jersey in my locker. So I'm just going to go ahead and go with it. I just started learning from there."

At first, Darius was directed to back up starting fullback Rahkeem Smith. But fate stepped in a second time.

"The day Mikel (LeShoure) got hurt I was very nervous. I think it was the first day. The coach was right there telling me the plays, giving me a chance to run around. Once they saw I was athletic enough, they put me in the backfield just in case somebody did get hurt.

"I love running back. You get the ball in your hands. You get to make a lot of the major decisions when you have the ball."

Darius Purcell never had a chance to prove himself last year. While his teammates worked out with Strength & Conditioning Coach Lou Hernandez over the summer to get in top shape for the season, Purcell had other responsibilities.

"The Bridge Program helped me develop better learning skills to process a lot of information in college. But I really didn't get the chance to work out with the team. So when I came here, I was like a new guy."

He not only was unfamiliar with the defense, he was overweight.

"I was 231 in January, the biggest I've ever been. And now, I am 212. My whole motivation for this winter workout was to lose weight, get faster and get stronger.

"Working out with Coach Lou, I had to lose two pounds a week, like a strict, very hard diet. I'm like passing out with the extra work. It was very worth it. I got faster, stronger. I benefitted a lot from that."

More than anything, Purcell is a football player. His ability to play numerous positions stems from his experiences in grammar school and at Chicago Hubbard high school.

"I played running back in grammar school. In high school, I played receiver, quarterback, running back, tight end, safety, linebacker, corner, everything.

"I love catching the ball. My favorite thing is when you catch the ball, it's what you do with it. I like to turn upfield, make a few moves and score touchdowns."

Defense is also important to him, however. Chicago Hubbard has produced a number of top football players over the years, and Darius learned from two of the best.

"I love to hit. I learned from Nate Lyles (All-American defensive back). He taught me how to hit.

"Robert Hughes (All-American now at Notre Dame) was a big dude. I was playing safety and was a little smaller than I am now. But we had to tackle him every practice. So I learned how to tackle well. Hitting him, doing Oklahoma drills, coming home with headaches. I started to get that aggressiveness from never quitting, never giving up."

Purcell now sees the redshirt season as a blessing in disguise, but he may still have a decision to make.

"Yeah, I've got four more years. I'm really deciding whether I want to stay at running back or go back to safety during fall. Coach and I've been talking about it alot. But I really want to stay at running back if that's the decision."

Fullback is a different story. The Sociology major is less fond of being a blocking back because it requires size to neutralize large linebackers and defensive linemen. If his choice was only fullback or safety, what would it be?


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