In 2010, the Illini were coming off a 3-9 season, their second losing season in as many years. Two years removed from an improbable Rose Bowl appearance, Illinois was in desperate need of playmakers.
Ryan Lankford, a three-star recruit out of Florida, chose Champaign-Urbana as his home for the next four years. Illinois’ head coach at the time, Ron Zook, was nothing if not charismatic. Lankford was a dynamic playmaker in high school and was named to the Florida Times Union’s Super 24 Team as well as a SuperPrep All-Southeast Region winner.
Now, Lankford, at 26, suits up for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League. With the season just a few short weeks away, Ryan was kind enough to sit down with The Champaign Room and answer a few questions.
TCR: How different has it been playing in Canada versus the states?
RL: It’s been a big transition. At first the game was totally different. Adjusting to the rules, play calling, game play, it all was a big transition. But now that I’m going into my fourth year the games comes a lot more natural. It’s a lot of fun!
TCR: When you were at Illinois, you returned punts in your sophomore season. How did that prepare you for returning kicks in the CFL?
RL: Well it’s given me a lot of confidence back there. Whether it’s punts or kickoffs, I feel comfortable. The extra coaching I had from Coach Hammer my sophomore year on top of the things I remember from high school, it all came back natural.
TCR: Coach O’Shea was the No. 4 pick in the 1993 draft. How has playing for a coach who had great success on the field translated in to his coaching ability? Does it help you as a young player working with a guy who knows what it is like on the field?
RL: Coach O’Shea is incredible. Such a humble man and a great leader. I honesty believe so much of our success is because of him leading the charge. It’s so easy to get guys to buy in because he is such a player’s coach and was such a solid player when he played. His door is always open and he always cares about you as a person and never misses a moment to teach, which I love. Any and every moment can be a teaching opportunity in his eyes and I appreciate that.
TCR: Your 79-yard grab last season went viral in Illini land, as we love to support our former players. What did it mean to you to see all the praise from former teammates and fans alike?
RL: Man it was great! You forget how strong the brotherhood of Illini football really is. I have a group chat that consists of Nathan Scheelhaase, Miles Osei & Corey Lewis, and we still actively talk on a regular basis. Even a few weeks ago at Spencer Harris’ wedding; tons of guys there and it felt like we just got out of practice. Just seeing the guys again and talking about the memories was something really special. The relationships are way deeper than football, a real-life brotherhood.
TCR: Winnipeg did not have a lot of success passing the ball last season, even though you finished at 12-6 for the season. Are you expecting a high volume of passing this season?
RL: We have an incredible coaching staff from top to bottom who works year around. I know Coach LaPolice has been busy trying to tweak things in our offense to give us the greatest chance of success. We have a great QB who is going to give us a chance to make plays. And at the same time he ball is going to be ran just as well. We have a powerful offense and a great leader in Lapo.
TCR: You spent your entire college career at Illinois. What were some of your most memorable moments from your career?
RL: Most memorable moments had to be my first 2 years. The back-to-back bowl games with Coach Zook were incredible. There was such a buzz around campus that made the season that much more fun. In addition to that, my senior year was great as well. Even though it was cut short due to injury, I felt like we had a lot of fun amongst us. We weren’t winning as much as we liked but the daily grind and game day we enjoyed because we all knew who the guy next to us was and how hard and invested they were. It really was special. If I had to do all four years again I would. Wouldn’t change a thing — except two more bowl games.
All of us here at The Champaign Room want to thank Ryan Lankford for taking time to answer some questions and wish him the best this season with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.