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Illinois defensive ends Keith Randolph and Johnny Newton continuing upward climb

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CHAMPAIGN — When Johnny Newton first met his teammate Keith Randolph, he was unsure.

Both had committed under previous coach Lovie Smith — Randolph in the 2019 class and Newton in 2020 — as three-star recruits and were working to get early playing time.

"At first I didn't like Keith," Newton joked. "I thought he was a pretty boy."

Randolph was a former high school basketball star. His number was 88, one he switched back to after a brief flirtation with zero during the spring, and was picked in part because of off-the-field appeal.

"I'm picking out numbers of coaches like here's 90, here's 99," Randolph recalled. "I'm like, girls like receivers and quarterbacks and stuff. I'm thinking, OK, 88's a receiver number, or like people who catch balls. I'll take it."

Then, Newton would see Randolph popping up at the facility at all hours.

Without texting each other, they’d both end up at the same spot, getting extra work in at 10 p.m. on a Saturday.

"We'd just see each other here," Newton said. "The only people in the facility. Even during the offseason, we'd just randomly come up here — like not even just texting each other. We'd just randomly be up here putting in workouts and watching film."

Since then, the duo have grown into a foundation on the team’s defense and were a big reason why the unit improved in 2021. Newton has been convinced of someone with a high work ethic and the pair have grown close.

"I just saw his work ethic and it resembled mine," Newton said. "So I just feel like that aspect of wanting to be one of the best one and wanting to be great, it just made us connect more."

After playing reserve roles over the previous two seasons, the duo broke out and combined for 7.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss as defensive ends in a three-man front. They’ve become pillars in Ryan Walters’ new scheme.

It’s also created a joking bond between the two. They both agreed to get single-digit numbers in the spring. Randolph got custody of zero after winning a game of rock, paper, scissors. Newton wasn’t pleased when he showed up at media day in the fall and Randolph had switched back to his old number.

The two were nicknamed the law firm during last season, combining both Newton and Randolph.

"We don't get along," Randolph joked. "That's my boy, my brother. I love him. He holds me accountable. I hold him accountable. We bump heads sometimes, but that's just how it is. That's family."

When this year comes around, the two will have a chance to take the defense forward another step. Their bond and production will set the pace for the Illini’s defense in 2022.

"Honestly, it's like playing with myself," Newton said. "I can count on him."

Neither are looking too far back at the improvement over the past couple of years or the recent breakout. Instead they are looking forward to a year where they can bring the Illini back to a bowl game and to continue that upward trajectory.

"You can't do that," Randolph said when asked about looking back at the past couple of years. "You can get complacent that way. You know, like, if we look back, aw yeah you did this last year, I did that last year, like at the end of the day nobody cares. ... We have a whole nother 12 games, hopefully more than 12 games in front of us."

Follow Anderson Kimball on Twitter at: byAndy Kimball


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