Freshman WR Sykes Already a Factor

As usual, Coach Ron Zook played a lot of freshmen against Missouri in the season opener last Saturday. Ten saw the field, and more could be called upon soon. While most are getting their college game experience on special teams or in backup roles, one surprising freshman was listed as a starter...Fred Sykes.

Fred was not highly rated coming out of Chamberlain High School in Tampa, Florida, in part because his team didn't throw the ball much. Recruiting gurus listed fellow freshman receivers Cordale Scott, A. J. Jenkins and Jack Ramsey ahead of Fred, but that was of little concern to him.

"I wasn't worried about it too much because my high school coach Ezra Johnson told me that God would send me where I needed to go. I was just giving it to God, and I ended up in a great place around great people. So I'm pleased and happy with where I'm at."

Sykes enrolled early at Illinois and benefitted from winter conditioning and spring practice.

"We have a really talented receiving corps. I can't really say I'm better than anybody, but the experience I had coming here early helped me out. When I got here, I got a chance to learn. The dbs here break on the ball a lot faster than high school. So getting used to that really helped."

That experience was a whirlwind for Fred, and he admits he felt he was drowning for awhile.

"Oh, yeah. Trying to learn the plays, trying to get used to the conditioning going on was tough, but I got through it. I was a little homesick at the time, but within a month of me being here, my girlfriend, her mom and my little brother came up, so that was pretty good. I felt at home here anyway."

Playing in an important college game was definitely different than high school for Fred, but he responded positively to the challenge.

"It's definitely a lot faster. It's not a big change except for the speed of it, and the guys are a lot stronger. I get the jitters a little bit because I'm new to it, but it's cool. I should be a little better next week."

Sykes was a skinny 169 pounds upon his arrival at Illinois, but solid weight training has improved his weight to 185 and his strength as well. By the Missouri game he was ready to play. With Jeff Cumberland out with injury and Chris Duvalt withheld the first half, Sykes got the start and responded with two pass receptions for 42 big yards.

"It feels good. Every game is not a perfect game. I've still got a lot to work on. I'm not really satisfied with how I played. I still could have done better."

Those who saw the game admired how he fought off a defender to grab a 25 yarder. He showed a lot of moxie and determination that will serve him well the rest of his career.

"When I came out of my break, I saw him behind me. I knew if I didn't go get that ball, it would be an interception. I didn't want that on my back, so I had to go get it.

"It was a great feeling. Not just catching passes from Juice, who I saw on TV when I was in high school. Wow, man, that felt good. But I was just happy to be out there."

The Sports Management major doesn't prefer to list his best attributes as a receiver because he wants to be good in all phases.

"I can't really say because I'm never satisfied. I always want to get better, so I can't really say yet. I learned from a great coach in my high school position coach, and he taught me to do certain things well."

He does admit that blocking is a challenge for him.

"Oh, man. Somebody like Vontae (Davis), blocking him all day is kind of tough because he's a talented guy. That's another thing I need to work on. It's pretty tough right now."

Fred is not surprised he is contributing as a freshman. He is also not surprised at the improvement in the Illini pass offense.

"I guess I did expect that because Coach Locksley is a great coach and has great players. I could see that coming. Juice just had a heck of a game. I knew a few of the guys like Chris Duvalt, I knew (Jarrod) Fayson was coming here, so I knew some of the guys here were fast. I knew we were gonna have a lot of speed, we just needed to work hard to be where we want to be."

Illinois is developing a quality receiving corps to go with its talented quarterbacks. But when the top players are listed, don't overlook Fred Sykes. In his quiet way, he might just end up one of the best.

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