For three seasons Kevin Hardy has been a forgotten man. While his fellow Illini linebackers have been the toast of Champaign, Hardy has quietly sipped a glass of Champale. "Last season Dana Howard, John Holecek and Simeon Rice (page 98) deserved all the attention they got, but the publicity also put pressure on them," says Hardy. "When I would make a big play, I know fans would say, 'Oh, yeah, there's that other guy.' "
Hardy is accustomed to walking (and tackling, sacking, even dunking) in the shadow of others. At Harrison High in Evansville, Ind., Hardy played basketball with Calbert Cheaney, now with the Washington Bullets. "Kids at school would walk around with T-shirts that read CHEANEY is GOD," says Hardy.
As a redshirt freshman in 1992, he had one more sack than Rice, but Rice was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. The next season Hardy was the only starting Illini linebacker left off the All-Big Ten first team. In '94 Hardy received first-team conference honors, and his coaches selected him as the team's defensive player of the year ahead of Rice, who led the Big Ten with 16 sacks. However, Hardy, who had 80 tackles and two interceptions in the Illini's 7-5 season, still dodged the limelight.
The Illini's strength is defense, but the offense should improve under Paul Schudel, coach Lou Tepper's third offensive coordinator in four seasons. Schudel, who had been the coach at Ball State, will have the Illini run more. Last year they finished last in the conference in rushing, averaging 130.7 yards per game. Quarterback Johnny Johnson, who threw for 2,495 yards with 19 touchdowns and six interceptions in '94, will guide the attack.
With Howard and Holecek in the NFL, the 6'4", 240-pound Hardy is now second fiddle to Rice, the country's best pass rusher. Says Tepper, "I've coached 15 linebackers who went on to the NFL, and Kevin is the most complete linebacker of them all."
In Tepper's defensive scheme Hardy plays drop linebacker and splits time between pass coverage and pass rushing. By contrast, Rice plays his position, called rush linebacker, like a defensive end. "That's why Kevin has been overshadowed," says Tepper. "If we didn't have Simeon, people would say, 'Wow, Kevin is a great pass rusher!' "
Maybe by the end of this season the spotlight will find the player who is more accustomed to the shade. Says Tepper, "Who knows? Maybe when the NFL draft comes some team might just pick Kevin over Simeon."