Ryan Lankford Is Still Young But Improving

Ryan Lankford (Getty Images)

The Fighting Illini football team has a number of versatile athletes who can help at multiple positions. Sophomore Ryan Lankford is more unique than most, combining receiving with punts and punt returns. He would play every position and cook the meals if it would help him see playing time. He has a bright future.

Ryan Lankford caught six passes for 129 yards and a touchdown as a freshman. So far this season, he has five receptions for 34 yards playing in back of senior star A.J. Jenkins. He expects to see more time at receiver as the season continues.

"I'm trying to do the same things I did in the spring. I'm coming out here trying to work hard to be the best. Take coaching very well. Not let it go to my head, just come out here and do what's natural, what I was born to do."

Jenkins and Darius Millines sat out the spring with injuries, allowing Lankford a chance to show what he could do. The speedster's potential was obvious.

"Obviously, when A.J. went down, somebody else had to step up. So I took it upon myself as the backup to step up and do what A.J. would do."

Helping him and all the receivers is the competition at the position.

"Competition's very strong. Alternately, the best guys will be on the field. Everyone's coming in and working hard. Everyone knows they have an equal chance to get on the field."

Now up to 173 pounds, the slender Lankford must also be a downfield blocker. It is one of several things he is working to improve.

"I've really worked on my leverage and using my feet more than just pure strength. Football is a leverage game.

"That's one of the things I've been working on. I've been working in the weight room a lot better. I came out of high school weighing 158, so I've made some improvement. Also my route running, looking the ball all the way in, things like that."

Illinois receivers are happy to see quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase progress as a passer. They now know their efforts to get open every play can be rewarded.

"He's really improved on his reads. He doesn't always have to throw to his #1 read. He can throw to #2 or # 3 sometimes, and the fourth read if he has a fourth read. He's understanding the offense more; he's a lot more relaxed."

The Jacksonville, Florida, product was asked if he gets frustrated when he doesn't see the ball come his way much.

"Not really. Everybody wants the ball, but we're all here for one goal. If that means me getting the ball a little less, we're trying to be the best team in the country. If that means I catch one ball a year, then I catch one ball a year."

Jenkins is serving as a role model for all receivers. His success might be their success in another year or two.

"Everybody wants to be that guy, breaking records here, being on Big Ten Network, Player of the Week, I think that's what we're all striving to be."

Besides his work at receiver, Lankford is the primary punt returner. He has drawn some flack for not making big gains on returns, but there are a lot of variables involved.

"Everyone has to do what they need to do, win their individual battles. And then I need to make a couple guys miss and score a touchdown. It's a lot harder to return when there's good hang time. And we don't have as much protection when we go for the block."

There is also the uncertainty resulting from environmental factors. If the punt is coming down outside the 10 yard line, it is Lankford's job to catch it even if he doesn't advance it afterward. Last Saturday against Ohio State he let one drop, to the team's detriment. He explains what happened on the play.

"The one that I let drop, the wind was blowing hard. The wind was at my back, so I thought the kick was gonna be short. But the wind happened to slow down. It was totally my fault I didn't run up and field the ball. It's hard to judge, but at the same time it's my job to catch the ball."

Lankford dreams big. He feels it is only a matter of time before he has an opportunity to break off a big return.

"You want to be able to run a return back, be like Devin Hester. The time will come, and you just have to be patient and make the play. I like returning punts. I think it's something I can do very well. Once we get it all together, it will be a good force for us."

Freshman punter Justin DuVernois has become more comfortable, so Lankford hasn't been asked to punt the last couple games. But he appreciates the opportunity to help the team.

"It's cool. Not a lot of people have done it, so it's cool to know I'm the guy that can do it."

His rugby style is effective when done properly, but his efforts have been inconsistent so far.

"I'm just working on the drop, how I drop and follow through. I need to drive through the ball instead of trying to kill it."

Lankford is a true triple threat when in punt formation. He played multiple positions in high school, including quarterback. In theory, he can punt, run or pass from punt formation. Of course, young players sometimes have too many options, producing uncertainty and thus inconsistency. Illini head coach Ron Zook has reduced his options, at least for this season.

"I just need to get the ball out. At first in camp, one of the options was to run, but Coach Zook wants me to just kick it."

Some fans would like to never see a rugby punt again, but it can be especially effective against a wind or to kick away from a dangerous returner. It also forces opponents to worry about Lankford as a runner, reducing their blocking on returns. Having Lankford as an option is useful whether he kicks in a game or not.

Some fans would like to see someone else return punts, but Lankford may be the best alternative when you consider his good hands, his intelligence and the threat he poses with his running ability. All he needs is one breakaway, and everyone will recognize his talent.

The same is true of his receiving. Lankford is still young and developing. Before he graduates, he will be a fan favorite.

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