Illinois' Rice 'finest pass rusher' in college ranks

By Craig Sanders

Arizona Daily Wildcat

When you talk about Illinois football, you talk about defense.

When you talk about defense in 1995, you talk about linebacker Simeon Rice.

Rice is all fire and intensity when he is behind his defensive line. He is one of those rare players that eyes are immediately drawn to. He is a playmaker, a special talent not unlike a Lawrence Taylor or a Deion Sanders. One word describes Rice: He is a force.

"Simeon will compete to be the finest pass rusher in collegiate football," Illinois head coach Lou Tepper said. "He should be the prime candidate in America for the Outland and Lombardi trophies, and the strongest defensive candidate for the Heisman Trophy since Hugh Green (of Pittsburgh)."

Rice is a homegrown Illinois product, following in the footsteps of former Illini greats such as Dana Howard, Moe Gardner and Dick Butkus. Like those others, he is the heart and soul of the defense.

"Rice drives our team and makes us go," Tepper said.

It is no wonder that he is a force. At 6-foot-5-inches and 250 pounds, he has the prototypical NFL body. He is fast, strong and smart. He can get around an offensive line with a quick first step and can sack with the best of them. Yet, more importantly, he has a knack for making the big play.

"You can't look at a film and find anyone blocking Rice," Arizona coach Dick Tomey said. "Those guys are just going to make some plays. You can just try and neutralize them as best as possible and keep them from knocking the ball out."

Rice is about the best outside linebacker in college football. He is an All-America player who blossomed in '94 with 16 sacks for 114 lost yards. He has 33 sacks in 35 games and 141 tackles in his three years with the Illini.

In '94, Rice was a first-team All-Big Ten selection and the Big Ten defensive lineman of the year. He was an honorable mention All-America candidate in '93 and the Big Ten freshman of the year in '92.

Rice insists, however, the honors mean little if his team isn't winning.

"Those aren't even a consideration right now," Rice said. "I want to focus on winning. I know what it takes to win a war. I'm not concerned with monetary awards right now. All I want to do is win."

Rice has often been compared to Lawrence Taylor, the quintessential outside linebacker who played his entire career with the New York Giants. An ESPN report earlier in the year quoted Rice as saying he didn't respect Taylor's abilities. Rice said the quote was taken out of context.

"I said that I was never impressed with Taylor because I never watched him," Rice said. "When I was growing up I wanted to be an offensive player. My heroes were players like Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson and Barry Sanders, (and they are) to this day. I didn't pay much attention to East Coast players, especially defensive players."

Illinois enters this week's game against No. 17 Arizona(2-0) with an 0-2 record, with losses against No. 11 Michigan and No. 20 Oregon. The Ducks loss was especially hard as it came in the last minutes. Rice believes it is his and fellow All-Big Ten linebacker Kevin Hardy's duty to give the team the confidence to win.

"It is my job and Kevin Hardy's job to get this team excited," Rice said. "I've seen a lack of desire in some players that needs to be there. We have to be able to bounce back from those losses."

He believes he is in the best shape of his life something that opponents will not be pleased to see.

"It seems like I'm going 79 to 80 plays in a game and I'm not even winded," Rice said. "I'm feeling great."

Rice is a Chicago native and has been highly touted ever since his high school days at Mt. Carmel High School. He is projected to be one of the top picks in this year's NFL draft. Some analysts have picked him as high as No. 1. While he toyed with the idea of leaving for the draft a year early, Rice does not believe his decision to return for his senior year was a mistake.

"I love Illinois and am a big part of this team," Rice said. "It is important to me to be here."

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