It's not easy figuring out who was the best linebacker at
Illinois last year. Consider the following:

Kevin Hardy was voted by his coaches as the Illini Defensive
Player of the Year, even though he received about as much ink as
you would find on an SAT test sheet. That was due in part to the
sublime play of ...

Simeon Rice, whose 16 sacks as a junior last season gave him a
career total of 33, three shy of the Big Ten record. Following
the team's 30-0 Liberty Bowl shutout of East Carolina, Rice was
told by NFL draftnik Mel Kiper Jr. that if he were to declare
for the draft he would be the No. 1 pick. And yet Rice finished
fourth in the voting for the Butkus Award as the country's best
linebacker to the eventual winner ...

Dana Howard, whose 150 tackles were a team high and his 595
career total a Big Ten record. So what must Howard have thought
when he was drafted 24 slots behind teammate ...

John Holecek, the only player among the quartet not named
first-team All-Big Ten?

''There's almost too much talent at this position here,'' says
Famous Hulbert, a third-string sophomore linebacker who is both
Famous and anonymous at the same time.

Why the glut of linebacking talent at Illinois? ''It all goes
back to recruiting,'' says defensive coordinator Denny Marcin.
''You walk into a defensive lineman's home, and he says, 'Coach,
I wanna be a linebacker.' Sounds nastier, faster. O.K., then
that's what I call them.''

Indeed, the 6'5", 243-pound Rice, who is being pushed for the
Heisman Trophy by the school, actually plays defensive end. But
in Marcin's 50 defense, Rice's title is Rush Linebacker.

Considering the defensive talent, the Illini's 7-5 record a year
ago was a disappointment. The team, however, never lost a game
by more than six points and hopes that its fourth new offensive
coordinator in the last four years, Paul Schudel, will help
light up the scoreboard.

Much of the voltage will come from junior flanker Jason Dulick
(52 receptions in '94), who at 6'5" provides an easy target for
the Illini quarterback. Whoever that may be. "We have a strong
one-two punch at quarterback," says Illinois coach Lou Tepper.
"Both Johnny Johnson and Scott Weaver need to gain experience in
our offense."

Johnson, a senior, got most of the work last year, tossing 19
touchdowns and only six interceptions while putting up a 137.6
passing efficiency, second best in Illini history. Weaver,
meanwhile, threw four touchdowns and two interceptions in
limited time.

Johnson knows the Illinois offense is destined to play second
fiddle to its vaunted defense once again, no matter who starts
at quarterback. ''That's O.K.,'' he says, ''as long as I'm first
string.''

Meanwhile, the man who is the new leader of that defense, Rice,
has no uncertainties about his status. ''I was asked recently
which opponents had impressed me,'' Rice says, ''and before I
even had a chance to answer, Kevin Hardy interrupted and said,
'Man, nobody impresses Simeon--except Simeon.'

''O.K.,'' Rice continues, ''that may be true. But I'm hoping
that this year, if somebody else impresses me, he plays offense
for us.''

--John Walters

COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN D. TIRPAK Rice will be beating linemen and stalking the Heisman. [Simeon Rice in game]

THE DATA BOX

Head coach: Lou Tepper
Career college record: 18-17-1
Fourth year at Illinois (18-17-1)

1994 RECORD: 7-5
Big Ten record: 4-4 (tied for fifth)

L Washington State 10-9 (at Chicago)
W Missouri 42-0
W Northern Illinois 34-10
L Purdue 22-16
W at Ohio State 24-10
W Iowa 47-7
L Michigan 19-14
W at Northwestern 28-7
W at Minnesota 21-17
L Penn State 35-31
L at Wisconsin 19-13
W East Carolina 30-0 (Liberty Bowl)

Final '94 ranking: unranked

Lettermen lost: 25
Lettermen returning: 33
Returning starters, offense: 6
Returning starters, defense: 6

KEY GAMES:
Sept. 2 Michigan
Sept. 16 Arizona
Nov. 11 at Ohio State

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)