Northwestern field goal specialists

Northwestern football players Jeff Budzien (from left), Brandon Williams and Patrick Hickey are the keys to the Wildcats' kicking success. (Lenny Gilmore / RedEye / September 24, 2013)

Illinois football has had rough times in recent years, but things might be looking up. The Illini are 3-1 in 2013, including a victory over high-powered Cincinnati. Ryan Lankford is a key reason for the turnaround, with 236 yards receiving, 52 yards rushing and two touchdowns. RedEye caught up with the senior receiver to discuss why the team is improving, why he loves trick plays and the unusual method he uses to unwind.

What has the coaching staff done to turn around the culture of Illinois football?

I think the biggest thing is just being positive, letting us know that we are a good football team and the past is the past, "We're a group of guys that are here and want to see you guys succeed and want to see you guys make plays." I think that's the biggest thing, just being confident and letting us know that we can play with anybody in the country.

What goals does the team have for the Big Ten season?

We would love to get in the [championship]. I think as a team you have to come in thinking that. 

Why have the trick plays been working and what makes them so valuable?

Coach Cubit [offensive coordinator Bill Cubit] is an offensive mastermind and we probably practice a trick play almost every day. He can just draw something up on the spot and really make it work. It makes our offense that much more fun because we know that he's not afraid to call a trick play.

Should college athletes get paid?

It's a tough situation. Because at first you want to say, "absolutely." As a college kid, anytime you can get extra money you want to say yes. As I sit back and think about it [however], you really don't.

[The school is] paying for a lot. The little bit of extra money we do get from scholarships, that's all our responsibility to manage that and be responsible with it. It's a little bit of both. I don't know all the different factors; it's one of those tough situations. But if they were down to say we need to get money. I wouldn't say no, I'd accept it. [laughs].

Do you see college athletes getting some type of compensation in the next several years?

I think in the next few years that probably will happen. There's so much stuff. The game is changing every day and the world is changing every day. I definitely feel that there will be little changes here and there and the change will be for the best. I can only hope that after I'm done playing ball that it only gets better for the player rather than worse.

What are some of the things the team does for fun?

I know lately a lot of the guys bought this "Grand Theft Auto" game, a lot of guys play NCAA [football]. You come in to the locker room every day and someone will be talking about “Oh I beat such and such last night.” So we're a big group of gamers on this team.

I definitely know when another NBA game comes out it'll be another uproar. I think it was in still in the summer we had a 2K tournament ["NBA 2K" video game] in the players' lounge. Probably had 15-20 guys that were up here all day long. 

Do you think video games help develop young athletes' minds?

I would say that. I know it's more so the other way around. We're better at the game because we play Division I football. We're able to know what “cover two” means compared to just the average person just looking at the colors and stuff. So we have some guys who are pretty good at the game just from playing football for so many years.

What's your favorite class?

Right now a pretty interesting class I'm taking is vegetable gardening in my senior year, just an hour booster class. I really didn't do much gardening growing up, or ever.

Is gardening a good way to relax away from football?