Athletic Pittman Emerges As Starting 'Backer

The Fighting Illini football team lacks depth at the linebacker spots. Graduation took two starters and a letterman reserve, so others must step up to replace them. Coach Ron Zook recently praised Rodney Pittman as being someone who has improved greatly at linebacker. Zook even made him a captain for the spring game.

"I told him yesterday I'm really, really happy with him," Zook last week. I said, 'Rodney, now going onto your fourth year, we're seeing what we thought we were going to be seeing two years ago. Rodney knows it's his job to lose, and he's just got to play the way he's capable of playing."

The 6'-2", 242 pounder out of Friendly high school in Fort Washington, Maryland, has lettered three times, but mostly as a reserve and special teams performer. Pittman appreciates praise from his head coach.

"Yeah, he's always giving me inspiration about it each and every year, so I love the man. He complimented me on my spring this far. I'm just trying to get better, just trying to keep building on my successes."

Actually, Rodney is highly motivated, realizing as many seniors do that it is his last chance for college success. He is playing like an experienced veteran, and he knows why.

"More confidence, more hungry. I just realize this is my last year, and I need to get it going. This is a great opportunity for me, and I'm in a good position to do great things. So I'm just happy to get out here my last year for the team."

Pittman played behind Brit Miller at the SAM or strongside linebacker spot the last two years, so perhaps he accepted his backup role too easily. With Miller moving to the middle spot he sees a chance to move up, and he has become much more ambitious.

"Yeah, definitely, that was what I set out here this spring ball is just secure that (first team). It's my time to showcase my abilities, and that's what I've been doing. Just trying to keep building on it and not staying complacent. Just trying to get better every day."

One play at the Rantoul high school scrimmage last fall also set back Rodney's progress. He flashed good speed and aggressiveness in corraling Arrelious "Rejus" Benn on a swing pass for little if any gain. Unfortunately, the clean play resulted in Benn dislocating his shoulder. It was hard for Pittman to put it out of his mind.

"Me and Rejus are close. When he came out here as a freshman, I just wanted it to feel like home. Me knowing like it is being far from home. When I did injure him, knowing with his talents and abilities how he could help the team, it was kind of devastating to me. But I tried to block it out and keep going.

"When I saw him get on the field and things, I was glad for him. I know his shoulder was still hurting. We kind of kid about it now. It was a good play, it was just one of those things. That's a close friend of mine, so it was kind of devastating seeing him injured."

Pittman is quick to describe his best attributes as a linebacker.

"I bring a lot of knowledge because I've been here four years. I'm a big kid, I'm physical, and I've got a lot of speed. With me and Tez (Martez Wilson) on the outside and Brit (Miller) in the middle, we bring a lot of athletic ability and a lot of speed to the team. We've just got a knack for making plays, and that's what I bring to the defense."

The SAM lines up opposite the tight end, so strength is important in competing against large, aggressive tight ends. But Pittman is prepared thanks to wrestling with teammate Michael "Oh-Oh" Hoomanawanui in practice every day.

"I feel I'm going against one of the best tight ends in the Big Ten in Oh Oh. He's a great tight end. I know it will be a challenge against Big Ten tight ends because I know how physical they can be, but I'm up for it."

Rodney believes four entering freshmen will help alleviate the lack of linebacker depth. He wants to help speed up their progress.

"We've got some good recruits coming in who we should be able to build real fast. We can bring them along in the summertime, so they should catch on real fast. We don't have a lot of depth, but we're just looking to make plays."

The Speech Communications major has loved his four years in Champaign-Urbana and is amazed at how fast the time has passed. He now sees a chance to start for a defense that will likely be the best in his time at Illinois.

"Yeah, and we're getting better every day. We're out here to dominate, and we haven't been complacent at all. I think our defense is jelling real good. We will get together in the summer and continue to work on things, so by the Missouri game I think we'll be tight."

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