Everywhere he goes, Simeon Rice is the bigger man. He is very tall and his arms span 86 inches and he runs faster than a body his size should be allowed. He has a laugh that sounds like the jingle of money. Simeon Rice has no doubt he can dominate the NFL right now. "Nope!" Rice cries, voice rising into sudden, cocksure singsong. "No question at all. That's like asking, Are you going to wake up tomorrow and be healthy? That's a dead issue."
The Mercury busts the edge of Champaign, Ill., whizzes past cornfields and warehouses and every quick and dirty element of highway America. Rice presses the pedal to 75 mph: Chicago soon. Everybody's early pick as the best college player in the nation splays his slender legs under the wheel. He stares through the windshield. Slow cars, slow running backs, his fourth season at rush linebacker for Illinois all loom ahead, and, yes, he plans to be healthy and primed for every bit of it. Want to argue? He's got a laconic, self-promoting answer for everything.
His Big Ten opposition? "If I'm playing against kindergartners, I'm going to play hard; I don't care," he says. "Some guys at this level may not be blessed with a lot of physical capabilities, but I approach every game the same way. My play depends on my frame of mind. I don't wait for someone to motivate me. I don't wait for the competition."
Linebacking legend Lawrence Taylor? "I don't even think LT was good. I can't see why he was special. He doesn't impress me."
Miami's Warren Sapp, last year's Lombardi Award winner as the nation's top defensive player and now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer? "Come on, man," Rice says, screwing up his face into the universal expression signaling the arrival of something rank. "I've got a 4.5 40—and gettin' faster."
Maybe somewhere a football god plans a day of reckoning for such disrespect, but it's not coming this July afternoon, not this final free summer of his life, not now. Last season Rice broke out as a major talent in the Illini's first game, in which he pummeled Washington State, making five sacks, blocking a field goal and forcing a fumble, which he recovered. He finished the season with 16 sacks, 20 tackles for losses and four caused fumbles, a 6'5", 253-pound slasher pivoting so quickly into the back-field that it seemed almost unfair. Only two Illinois players, on offense or defense, are faster. Rice stopped running with linebackers in practice long ago because they were so slow. "A man among boys," says fellow Illini linebacker Kevin Hardy, a top-five NFL draft prospect himself, and it's true: Rice already boasts the Illinois career sack mark—33 in 35 games—and now battles only history. Locally, he has been lumped with alums Ray Nitschke, Dick Butkus and Dana Howard, last year's Butkus Award winner, and with Heisman Trophy hype sure to reach fever pitch, observers are comparing Rice to All-Timers from all over.
"His speed? I've never seen anything like it in a pass rusher," says Illini coach Lou Tepper, who coached Buffalo Bill All-Pro Bruce Smith at Virginia Tech. "In my 28 years, I haven't had a guy who makes more big plays. He's the kind of guy that, every snap, you've got to have a plan. What are you going to do with this gay? He gets to people so fast.
"It's rare that a defensive player can be like a Red Grange or a Gale Sayers, can take on that kind of dimension," Tepper adds. "But he's the Red Grange of defense."
"I've seen two guys make the same play: Lawrence Taylor was one, and Simeon's done it twice." says Illini defensive coordinator Denny Marcin, who coached Taylor at North Carolina. "In that game against Washington State, Simeon slaps the ball out of the quarterback's hand and recovers it. Against Michigan, same thing two years ago. End of the game, Michigan leading and running the clock out. Simmy strips the ball and recovers it." The play led to Illinois's 24-21 win. Adds Marcin: "Most people can't both strip the ball and recover it—who knows where the ball's going? He knows."
In the NFL few talents are more revered than pass rushing. A great pass rusher can disrupt an offense by himself, draw double and triple teams, free up teammates, weaken protection and cause such havoc—and the fear of such havoc—that no quarterback can operate without wondering. Last spring the NFL's top scouting operations, BLESTO and the National scouting combine, both rated Rice their No. 1 returning player and a sure starter on the pro level. Some pro scouts, pointing to last season's no-tackle effort against Penn State, question Rice's consistency. But if a season of spectacular numbers makes him the first defensive player to win the Heisman, he is all but guaranteed to be the No. 1 draft pick, too.