Ray Nitschke and Dick Butkus played at Illinois, so they are no strangers to talented Linebackers. But, in the 1994 season, Illinois may have topped everyone in the nation for having the best set of Linebackers. They may have been the best Linebackers on one team ever in the history of the game.
When researching another article about the best group of Linebackers on the same team, I had almost forgotten about the group that Illinois had on it’s roster at one point. See that list here: best linebackers
Simeon Rice was a highly recruited star out of Chicago’s South side famous high school, Mt Carmel. Coming out of that school besides Simeon Rice were such stars as Donovan McNabb, Chris Calloway, Frank Cornish, Matt Cushing and Jordan Lynch. There were also several NBA and MLB players that played high school ball at Chicago Mt Carmel.
Rice was a troubled youth and always in trouble. His exasperated parents sent him to the all boys Catholic school Mt Carmel in an attempt to straighten him up.
Rice wanted to play Running Back, but his coaches wanted him elsewhere and his bad attitude kept him from performing all that well. But, by his senior season, Rice seemed to turn things around. Even so, college coaches refused to recruit him even if he did have talent.
Illinois was only too glad to take him.
As a college player at Illinois, the 6-5, 250 Rice seemed to get his act together and actually worked at both football and his studies. Rice was used as an Outside Linebacker in a 3-4 defense and he rushed the passer predominately. In one game, he had 5 sacks which is obviously pretty phenomenal.
Offenses started changing their blocking schemes to account for Simeon Rice.
Rice elected to return for his senior season and became a 4 year starter.
Claiming to run a 4.5 40, Rice actually ran a 4.66 40 but that’s still good for a 6-5, 260 Outside Linebacker or Defensive End. The talented Rice was taken with the 3rd pick of the 1st round in the 1996 NFL Draft by the Arizona Cardinals.
In the NFL, Rice played 5 seasons with the Cardinals before becoming a free agent and then he wanted out. He signed with Tampa Bay and played there 6 years and won a Super Bowl there. After 11 seasons, Simeon Rice’s health failed him and he was cut by Tampa. He tried again with the Broncos in 2007. He finished is NFL career with 122 Quarterback sacks.
Dana Howard grew up on the mean streets of East St Louis and went to high school at East St Louis High School. Like Simeon Rice’s high school, East St Louis has produced some talent over the years. The very best would be Kellen Winslow, but they also can list Bryan Cox, Victor Scott and many other athletes such as Jackie Joyner-Kersee and MLB and NBA players.
Howard chose Illinois to play his college football even with plenty of offers from big time programs. In spite of looking for a school where he could make an immediate impact, Howard redshirted as a freshman. That was a good move by the Illinois coaches because Howard was able to get stronger and faster and more prepared to play Linebacker in college.
As a redshirt freshman, he was a starter at an Inside Linebacker position. He quickly became the top tackler on the team and he totaled over 100 tackles all four seasons he started for the Illini.
As a junior in 1993, Howard was a 1st team All American. He topped that in 1994 by earning
consensus All American honors and the Butkus Award which is awarded to the nation’s top Linebacker. When Howard arrived at Illinois, he had never heard of Dick Butkus, but he quickly found out. In addition to the Butkus Award, Howard also won the Lambert Award.
He is still the all time leading tackler at Illinois with 595 career tackles. He was just a tackling machine with a nose for the football.
Howard was 6-0, 240 and a devastating tackler, so it’s hard to comprehend why that didn’t carry over into the NFL. He was a 5th round draft choice by the Dallas Cowboys in 1995 and that was in their glory years. Howard was cut in August by the Cowboys and he signed with the home town St Louis Rams. Playing for the Rams for one season, Howard was released in August of the following year. The Chicago Bears picked him up and he had visions of being another Mike Singletary or Dick Butkus, but he only played there briefly.
A couple of seasons later, Howard got one more shot with the Philadelphia Eagles, but they sent him to Europe to play in the developmental league and he was out of football by 1999.
For those that think that there’s not any good football players coming out of the state of Indiana, may I present Kevin Hardy of Evansville, Indiana.
Hardy played his high school football at William Henry Harrison High School in Evansville which also produced Pro Bowler Scott Studwell and Sean Bennett.
Unlike Simeon Rice, Hardy was an honor roll student. Plus, he also played basketball, of course, and he ran track. I wrote of course because every kid in Indiana plays basketball. Hardy was 6-4, 205 in high school. On his basketball team was Calbert Cheaney who signed with Indiana and became an
All American. Also, Walter McCarty who signed with Kentucky and then played in the NBA. Plus, Chris Lowery who played at Southern Illinois and now is a basketball coach.
Hardy was not highly recruited, but Illinois head coach Lou Tepper had been an NFL coach and knew Linebackers really well. He wanted Kevin Hardy and offered him. Hardy was just grateful to get the opportunity in the Big 10.
Kevin Hardy got his chance and he eventually muscled up to around 260 pounds. He was a wild man on the football field and played hard.
Hardy was a very productive college player and the year after teammate Dana Howard won the Butkus Award, Hardy also won it. Hardy was also a consensus All American in 1995.
Hardy went even higher in the NFL Draft than Simeon Rice. In the 1996 NFL Draft, Hardy went with the 2nd pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Rice went with the next pick to Tampa Bay.
Hardy played 6 seasons for the Jaguars before tearing up his knee in 2001.
The Dallas Cowboys took a shot with him and his injured knee and signed him to a big contract and he was a Cowboy for one season. They let him go because of salary cap issues and Hardy went to Cincinnati and he was a Bengal the remainder of his career.
John Holecek was the 4th Linebacker on the 1994 Illinois football team. Like the others, he came from a high school that has produced other talented players. Holecek went to Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, Illinois. Others coming from school include Rodney Harrison, Dennis Kelly, Mike Prior and John McGarry.
Holecek was a 3 sport star in high school playing baseball and wrestling as well as playing football. He played Tight End and Middle Linebacker at Marian High School.
Supposedly, Holecek was really good in wrestling. He was tough as nails and he could run.
Holecek was like Dana Howard in that he lacked length only standing an even 6-0. But, he was recruited by quite a few schools before deciding on Illinois.
Holecek had knee problems at Illinois, but still fought back to earn All Big 10 honors in 1993 and 1994. In spite of injuries, Holecek is still 5th on the all time career tackles list with 436.
Holecek was picked in the 5th round by the Buffalo Bills and he played in the NFL for 8 seasons before the knees finally did him in for good. He was still a good NFL player leading the Bills in tackles several seasons.
Holecek tested the highest of anyone in the 1995 NFL Draft for intelligence and after playing football he began coaching.
Since Illinois hired Lovie Smith as it’s next head coach, I am hopeful that the Illini can recruit guys like these again.