Freshman TE Graham Learning on the Job

High school athletes look for a special feeling when deciding what college to attend. Some remain confused and uncertain throughout the process. But for freshman tight end Hubie Graham, the name Illinois rang loudly and clearly in his heart and mind.

Graham could have attended nearly any university in the country. He was a SuperPrep All-American and rated the 12th best tight end in the nation by Scout. Early prognosticators gave Illinois little chance of recruiting him, but that all changed once he visited the school.

"The whole recruiting process, Coach (Jim) Pry and Coach (Ron) Zook would reach out and touch me, and they were always in the back of my mind," Graham explained. "Behind my back, my dad was always keeping in contact with Coach Zook and Coach Pry. He'd always throw things out at me and mention them.

"When I took my officials, I went to Pittsburgh, Iowa, and UCLA. My fourth official was supposed to be Michigan, but with Lloyd Carr retiring I decided to change that. I was scrambling. I was wanting to take a fourth official. So my dad said, 'Why don't you just try to go to Illinois and see what it's like.' So I went out to Illinois.

"It probably took me five minutes at that Michigan game to decide that's where I wanted to be. Everybody said you get that feeling, and I got it. I was looking for that in all my officials. All of them were ok, but something just jumped out at me here. The coaching staff had a big part, and Hoo-ooo (tight end Michael Hoomanawanui) especially."

Adding to the mystique, Hubie's dad applied for a work transfer to locations near his sons' recruiting finalists, but an opportunity in a Chicago suburb was the only one that came through for him. Perhaps it was just meant to be.

"My dad got a great job opportunity in Arlington Heights, so that's been working out great. We have a couple days off, and living in Pennsylvania I would never have a chance to go home. But I get to go with my dad for the weekend and hang out with him. So it's good to have him around.

"It was probably fate. Me coming out after the Michigan thing got messed up, and then my dad transferring out here, it all seemed to happen for a reason."

And that reason is to play football for the Illini, beginning his first season. Graham is presently running second string and is gradually beginning to make a contribution.

"I've been doing good. The biggest thing is the transformation (from high school). Coach Pry has been great. He's been working with me, and Hoo-ooo's been working with me since camp and all through camp. That just makes things a lot easier. The only thing you can do is keep grinding.

"It's a lot different than high school. But you've got to tell yourself, whether you're a freshman or senior, that you can play with them. I definitely feel a lot more confident and less nervous as the weeks go on. In camp I was scrambling around a little bit, and even a couple weeks ago. But now I'm settling down and things are starting to slow down a little for me."

Hubie has seen some reps with field goal, punt and kickoff special teams, and he enters games when the Illini use two tight end formations.

"I've been getting into the games. They've been trying to work me in. As the weeks go on, they'll get more confidence in me. So I'll keep working and getting used to everything. As everyone knows, we have a complex offense. I've just got to stay in the playbook and pay attention in meetings and I'll be all right."

Rival recruiters tell prospects that Illinois doesn't pass to their tight ends. Hoomanawanui's improvement has begun to prove them wrong, but Graham had to undergo a leap of faith when he decided on the Illini. He is now excited to see how often the tight end is getting the ball.

"Hoo-ooo's been getting a lot of touches, and it's all how you work in the offseason. He's a good player, and he has the speed also. Getting the tight ends the ball is really getting me excited. I've just got to get out there."

Still, the 6'-4", 248 pounder knows a tight end must also be a devastating blocker to see the field. Quality tight ends are hard to find, but Hubie loves the uniqueness of the position and has no preference between receiving and blocking.

"I just want to help the team. I found my place, and if I keep working I'll get the ball in my hands. We're definitely a different breed, but we get the job done at both aspects. Number one thing is, if you don't block you're not gonna get the ball. So you better get in there and start blocking."

Graham knows he still has much to learn, but he's an eager and quick learner.

"I definitely need to work on my blocking a little bit. And just reading the defense, the d-ends, and working on my routes a little bit. You know, just being a student of the game. I have to watch film and do everything I can to get better. It's very time consuming, but if you put in the time you can achieve."

One thing Hubie hasn't needed to learn is how to be aggressive and hard-nosed. The Scranton, Pennsylvania, native was born and raised that way.

"The thing I've picked up the quickest is being physical. If you're not physical out there, you're gonna get eaten up pretty good. Pennsylvania is known for their hard-hitting football, so I try to carry that tradition over here."

The upcoming Penn State game is especially important for Graham.

"I can't wait to go there. It's gonna be incredible. Penn State's only two hours away from me, so I've got my whole family coming. I think the whole city's coming because we have a walkon quarterback at Penn State, so there's gonna be a lot of fans there.

"It's gonna be a special game for me. I don't know if the coach will have enough confidence in me to put me in in a big game like that, but I'm gonna work hard and hopefully find myself on the field."

Hubie is confident the Illini will give the Nittany Lions a great game. The Illini were uninspired for the Louisiana-Lafayette game, but he isn't letting doubters interfere with what he knows to be true.

"We're definitely not that far behind. I think it's a good thing people haven't seen our potential yet. We're an incredible football team, and we're gonna get everything together before Penn State.

"People are always looking for someone to blame, always pointing fingers. Our football team is everybody as a whole, and we seemed to play down to their level a little bit. But going into the Big Ten season, we've had some good practices here and we're gonna just grind it out."

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