Cumberland Versatility Pays Off Vs. UM

A versatile athlete can create numerous opportunities for himself. Being willing and able to play several positions can be challenging, but those who can do so effectively are in great demand. Illini senior receiver Jeff Cumberland was moved to tight end to fill a need Saturday, and he responded in a big way.

Jeff Cumberland has tremendous size, speed and athleticism. He came to Illinois despite growing up in the shadow of Ohio State's Horseshoe. He played his first year and a half at tight end before finding a comfort level on the outside.

When tight ends Michael Hoomanawanui and Hubie Graham went out with injuries, Illinois coach Ron Zook asked Cumberland if he could help out at tight end. He made two important catches and blocked well enough to help the Illini rush for 377 yards against Michigan.

"Our two tight ends were out, so I went out there and made plays and blocked," Cumberland understates. "It felt pretty smooth. My technique wasn't down, but not having played the position in two and half years and only having one week to prepare, I felt like I did pretty well."

That sounds simple enough, but few could have made the move as effectively as Cumberland. It was good to see him have a good game, but his career has been somewhat enigmatic. On paper, he looks special. But his potential has never been fully realized. Zook discussed his situation recently.

"I think if you ask Jeff, at times he's probably frustrated and at times he understands that maybe some of it is his fault and some of it is opportunities. You talk a lot about how in life, whenever you get an opportunity you have to be ready to go.

"Jeff and I had a long talk last Sunday, and I was excited about his attitude and wanting to go down and get back into that position. We talked about the whole thing from the time he came in as a tight end and why I thought he'd maybe be best suited to be a wide out. At that time he was about 220, and now he's about 250 or 255.

"He kind of put on a burst of weight there, and I asked him why he didn't come back in and talk then. He said he didn't want to act like he was always wanting to change positions. If you get to know Jeff, he doesn't talk a whole lot. He's a pretty good kid, he really is. He works hard and he's about the team."

At wide receiver, Cumberland must be quick, maneuverable and flexible. At tight end, he must be strong and powerful. He has the talent for it, but his body lacked flexibility early in his career. He found yoga helped him with that.

"Yoga has helped me with my flexibility, balance, and core. It helps with my quickness and other things."

It is his last year, so he has worked hard to make improvements.

"This year, I worked a lot on my route running, my hands and other things I needed to do. Like running to the ball every time it comes my way and try to focus on that even when I'm tired. Pushing myself and keep going. My main focus is to be consistent, catch the balls and be the playmaker I can be."

Winner of dunk contests, Cumberland nonetheless has had problems catching alley oop passes in the endzone. Former offensive coordinator Mike Locksley pointed out for the Big Ten Network's "The Journey" how Cumberland would miss those passes. He says the criticism didn't bother him.

"No, I wasn't worried about it. We were just doing a little drill, and he threw the ball up. That didn't get to me. That was just a coaching decision. He just wanted me to work on it because I'm so big. That's what I did, and I got a lot better on it.

"Me and Juice worked hard over the summer to help me catch the ball at its highest point. I'm tall and I can jump, so I want to show people I have the ability and can go up and make plays.

"I've always been big and can jump. It's just me having to time the ball. I used to jump too early or too late. But now I've got the timing down."

That hard work paid off with a three yard touchdown on a lob from Juice Williams late in the Indiana game this season. This from a man who was withheld from the last play of the Minnesota game in 2008 when the Illini needed to catch a desperation heave to tie or win the game. Better late than never.

Cumberland continues to find ways of helping the team. He still has high hopes the Michigan victory can serve as a springboard for the Illini to reverse their destiny.

"We've been believing that we can go out there and win, but we just hadn't. This win should motivate us more that we can get the rest of the wins and get to a nice bowl game."

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