GCMS's Mitch McNutt signs with University of Illinois football team with preferred walk-on status

GIBSON CITY — How could the 2017-18 school year get any better for Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley senior Mitch McNutt?
 
First, he was a key cog in the Falcon football team’s run to a Class 2A state championship. 
 
"That's everybody's goal," McNutt said. 
 
Then, he earned News-Gazette Player of the Year honors for piling up the area’s most rushing yards (1,693) and touchdowns (32), including 139 yards a trio of scores in the title game and 111 yards and the game-winning score in the semifinal game.
 
The topper came Wednesday, as McNutt signed with Lovie Smith’s Illinois program as a preferred walk-on.
 
“The U of I was always at the top of my list since I know them best,” said McNutt, who will play running back with the Illini. “(Tuesday) I got a text from one of their coordinators, they sent their letter of intent, and it was the best fit. I knew I could sign (Wednesday).”
 
He will be playing for a UI program coached by Lovie Smith, who coached Brian Urlacher, a 2018 Pro Football Hall of Fame Inductee. Smith coached the National Football League's Chicago Bears to an appearance in Super Bowl XLI.
 
"You've got to listen to him. He's a great coach. It's pretty crazy," McNutt said. "It's unbelievable. He's been to the Super Bowl and has coached some great athletes. It feels great. Everybody around here are Illinois fans that grew up and and Illinois fan, so it's a great accomplishment."
 
McNutt held scholarship offers from Valparaiso and a few Division II schools, as well as preferred walk-on status with Illinois State and Southern Illinois. Wisconsin-Platteville showed some interest as well, McNutt said.
 
But relationships with the Illinois staff and the ability to spend his next four years close to home played heavily into McNutt’s pick.
 
“It’s a big part of your life,” said McNutt. “I’ve always been a big Illinois fan. That’s my favorite college and football team. To get a chance to play there is a dream come true.
 
"It's just 30 minutes down the road. It's super-close, and my sister goes there -- she'll be graduating, she's a senior at the UI. Growing up, I was always being there and going to games as a kid. Now that I can actually be out there playing, it was, no doubt, my first choice."
 
One of those influential relationships with the University of Illinois is athletic training graduate Dr. Tim Leonard, who had been training McNutt since the fifth grade, when McNutt visited his chiropractic office in Gibson City.
 
McNutt still works with Leonard at Gibson Area Hospital in addition to training with GCMS assistant Brandon Luttrell and putting in time on his own. That equals four to five workouts a day, some starting as early as 4 or 5 a.m.
 
On some Sundays, when no one else was in the GAH building, Leonard opened it up for McNutt to work out.
 
"He had a ton of influence," McNutt said. "He means a lot. Everything he's done has obviously paid off, and I really appreciate that."
 
Leonard's influence also helped McNutt decide to major in exercise science.
 
"He knows all about that stuff," McNutt said. "He has talked to me about it and educated me a little bit about it."
 
The prospect of playing football close to home is nothing new to McNutt, who lives down the street from GCMS High School, where he piled up 1,235 rushing yards and 21 scores his junior season.
 
The 6-0, 220-pound said McNutt will miss his high school playing days.
 
"Friday night lights in a little town, pep assemblies -- I'll miss that stuff, but I'm moving on to Illinois," McNutt said. "It's going to be great to go down there. I'll try to keep in touch with the guys and cheer them on Fridays. I'll definitely miss (GCMS) for sure."
 
McNutt is the latest GCMS football star to go the D-I route, following 2016 graduate Nick Meunier at Army. McNutt will also travel the path of former Gibson City star Kip Rutledge, who competed for the Illini in 1987.
 
“That’s rewarding as a coach, to see his excitement,” GCMS coach Mike Allen said. “His dad showed me a thing he wrote in third grade, his goals before his graduated from high school. And, honestly, he’s accomplished all of them.”
 
McNutt said he realized during his junior year, when he compiled 1,235 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns, that his aspirations of playing D-I football were plausible. 
 
The UI, therefore, was at least one place he visited after his junior year. 
 
"I really liked it there," McNutt said. "Growing up as an Illinois fan, I thought it would be great to play there."
 
After accomplishing even more in 2017, D-I football only became more feasible for the 6-foot, 220-pound McNutt.
 
“It’s always been my dream,” McNutt said. “You never know if it’s realistic when you’re a kid. You go to the big D-I camps in the summer, you talk to the coaches and get your confidence up, and you just have to have a good senior year. And to get (a spot at Illinois) from it is the best news.”
-- Andrew Rosten contributed to this report
Categories (3):Prep Sports, Football, Sports

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