Tim Kynard didn’t just see the upperclassmen on the Illinois football team as cohorts or colleagues. He regarded those players as mentors.
The St. John’s Jesuit graduate joined the Illini in the fall of 2009, yet he redshirted as a freshman while he recovered from shoulder surgery. Instead of chalking up the season as a loss, he turned it into a learning experience by following the lead of the Illini’s sophomores, juniors, and seniors.
In his first year with the Illini, the Toledoan immersed himself not just into becoming a college student but a college football player. He took film sessions seriously. He studied the playbook. He showed up to every practice and every meeting. He took cues from his experienced teammates. And he followed the lead of linebacker Whitney Mercilus, a linebacker who now plays for the Houston Texans.
“He’s one of my good friends who got drafted, and he lived right around the corner from me,” said Kynard, a 6-foot-3, 260-pound defensive end for the Illini. “We talked a lot about expectations and how to come into the season, and how to get prepared to play. We’re really good friends, and he showed me the ropes.”
Kynard will join the Illini (2-4, 0-2 Big Ten) when they face Michigan today in Ann Arbor. Though he left last weekend’s loss at Wisconsin on crutches because of an ankle injury, Kynard said Wednesday that he participated in his first day of contact drills and plans to have a small cheering section of friends and family in the Big House.
In four starts this season, Kynard has nine tackles (four solo) and a half-sack, and recovered a fumble in the Illini’s 52-24 loss to Louisiana Tech on Sept. 22.
While the program seeks its first win since Sept. 15, the Illini lead in the Big Ten on third-down conversions (27.4 percent) and second in the conference in red-zone defense (70.8 percent) behind Penn State (68.8 percent)— a point not unnoticed by the Wolverines.
“It’s guys really being coachable,” Michigan receiver Roy Roundtree said of Illinois’ defensive proficiency. “They really aren’t trying to give up points, and they’re trying to hold their opponents to field goals, and they’ve been doing a great job of that."
Although Michigan defeated Illinois 31-14 last year in Champaign, Ill., the Illini stopped Michigan’s offense three times inside the 20-yard line during the second quarter, and forced three turnovers in the first half. This season, the Wolverines (3-2, 1-0) are 17 for 20 in the red zone, with 11 touchdowns scored inside the 20.
“If we can stop a team on third-down, we can either force [opponents] to go for field goals or to punt,” Kynard said. “We love to have other teams punt. We know Michigan has an explosive offense, and this is going to be key for us.”
But Kynard also knows the other factor that must work for Illinois’ defense: stopping Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. Robinson enters today’s game as the Big Ten’s leading rusher, averaging 135.2 yards a game, and the conference’s leader in total offense, averaging 323.6 yards a game.
“He’s probably one of the most explosive players in college football,” Kynard said. “We have to stop the run and the pass. But he is the key.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.