College Sports

Columbia’s Jordan Holmes hopes to make an impact as second-year walk-on with Illini

Columbia senior is a 2-sport star in football and basketball

Columbia Eagles senior Jordan Holmes talks about possible college destinations in basketball and football.
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Columbia Eagles senior Jordan Holmes talks about possible college destinations in basketball and football.

Some of Jordan Holmes’ fondest memories of growing up in Columbia involve weekend trips with his dad David and brothers to Champiaign to watch their favorite college football team compete against Big 10 Conference foes.

He’s wanted to play for the Fighting Illini ever since.

On Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium last September, the non-scholarship walk-on at wide-receiver, caught a pass and returned a punt in his debut in orange and blue. Illinois defeated Western Illinois, 34-14.

“My entire family was there. The stars were aligned perfectly for that game,’’ Holmes said. “It was just a blessing. I thank the Lord for giving me the strength and wisdom to be here on my own and to be doing what I’m doing.

“Because its hard. being a walk-on.”

Now a sophomore, Holmes and his teammates are preparing for their Aug. 31 season opener against the University of Akron.

A 2018 graduate of Columbia High School, where be broke several receiving records and earned all-state recognition in both football and basketball, the 6-foot, 180-pound Holmes is hoping to make more of an impact this fall. He caught two passes for 23 yards and returned three punts for a total of 10 yards as a freshman.

Having acclimated to life as a Division I student-athlete over the last 12 months will certainly help him. So will the disciplines he’s learning under new Illinois strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez, he said.

“The playbook is a little easier this year since its the same as last year and I I know what is going on. And overall, I just feel like I’m a better football player,” Holmes said. “Having Lou Hernandez come in as our strength and conditioning coach has really straightened us out. I feel like I’ve gotten stronger and faster. The coaches have been working with me almost every day, correcting my game and helping get me to my full potential.’’

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High school record-breaker

The middle son of David and Tracey Holmes, Jordan Holmes was a three-sport standout at Columbia.

A three-time all-conference and two-time honorable mention all-state basketball player, Holmes is the fourth leading scorer in Eagles basketball history with 1,605 career points. He was also an All-Cahokia Conference baseball player during the 2018 season.

But it’s on the football field where he was a record breaker. Holmes ranked first in school history in single season receptions (62), receiving touchdowns (12), and yards (1,020). He also owns career marks in receptions (149), receiving yards (2,188) and touchdowns (22).

“He was an easy kid to coach. He always brought his best every single day, no matter if it were practice or game,” said Columbia football coach Scott Horner. “He was a quiet leader, his actions spoke plenty loud. He always performed his best when the lights were the brightest. He was born for it.’’

Holmes could had scholarship offers from the Air Force Academy and McKendree, but choose instead to follow his dream to Champaign-Urbana.

“I really wanted to come to Illinois,” Holmes said. “My dad went here and he told me about a lot of the experiences that he went through. He just said that overall it was just a great school and that I would never forget my four years here.’’

“He is proving, already, that he belongs,” Horner said. “I’m not surprised at all of his success.”

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Columbia senior Jordan Holmes dives for the endzone during a playoff game in 2016. The 6-foot, 175 wide receiver took a pass on football and basketball scholarships at small schools to be a preferred walk-on at Illinois. dholtmann@bnd.com Derik Holtmann

Walk-on pedigree

Holmes isn’t his family’s only walk-on athlete at a NCAA Division I school. Older brother Jonathan was a fan-favorite as a walk-on with the University of Arkansas basketball program for over 2 1/2 years. It wasn’t until the 2019 spring semester that Jonathan Holmes, a junior, was awarded a scholarship with the Razorbacks.

“We’ve had some tough times as walk-ons but we talk every day and we’re there for each other,” Jordan said. “It’s been a roller-coaster ride ... For Jonathan to get over the hump and get that scholarship, I couldn’t have been happier for him. It was something he has worked for his whole life.”

Making a mark as a wide receiver at Illinois is in Jordan’s DNA, Horner said.

“It certainly is special that two brothers from the same family have established themselves at the D1 level as walk-ons.,’’ Horner said. “ I always have said that great kids come from great parents ... They really exemplify a couple passionate guys who have a dream and will stop at nothing trying to live it out. ‘’

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A group of Maryland defenders tackle Illinois wide receiver Jordan Holmes as he rushes the ball in the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, in College Park, Md. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) Patrick Semansky AP

Illini revival

While Holmes mental toughness and desire were noticed by the Illinois coaching staff, it was his athletic ability and early season injuries to more experienced receivers which earned him playing time just two games into his freshman year.

“Playing last year as a freshman, it was really unexpected. We had some injuries at the wide receiver spot and I had the opportunity to play. I had to step up,’’ Holmes said. “I mean having a chance to play in the second game of my freshman year and also getting my first reception and first punt return is something you dream about.’’

Illinois’ offensive coordinator Rod Smith said Holmes has been impressive from the first day of his freshman season.

“Jordan came in last year and made a lot of plays early on. He’s got a good skills set and he catches the football really well.,” Smith said. “Wide receivers coach (Andrew Hayes-Stoker) and I really believe that Jordan will really be able to help us out at some point.

“Everybody gets an opportunity. It’s what you do with that opportunity that matters. Jordan showed us that he’s worthy of being on the football field with anybody else.”

Holmes returns to Columbia when time permits and he plans on attending an Eagles football game during Illinois bye week this fall. Columbia is expected to be one of the top Class 4A-5A teams in the state this season.

But on most Saturday afternoons this fall, Holmes will be representing his hometown as a member of the Fighting Illini.

Just as he had long planned.

“Coming from a small town like Columbia, nobody expects you to make it., especially at the NCAA Division I level,” he said. “I am living the dream up here. The coaching staff is just unbelievable. They’ve got a great thing going on up here I believe in every single one of these coaches. We’re going to turn this thing around this year.”

Dean Criddle has worked at the Belleville News-Democrat for 32 years as a sports writer. Dean graduated from SIUE with a double major in journalism and English, is married and lives in Belleville.
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