Welcome to the Newton and Randolph Law Firm. They mean business. Unlike lawyers, though, they’re over six feet tall and weigh in at about 300 pounds.
And they’re coming for your quarterback.
The tandem of sophomore defensive linemen Keith Randolph Jr. and Jer’Zhan Newton burst onto the scene on the Illini defense last season under defensive coordinator Ryan Walters after not previously getting frequent playing time since arriving in Champaign.
Despite that limited experience, head coach Bret Bielema put his confidence in the underclassmen D linemen, and he was the one who coined the duo’s “law firm” mantra.
“I always work. I do extra work every day, so for him to just think of me like that, I feel like that was a big step for me,” Newton said. “It caught more attention to my name, and I have to play up to that name, so I really appreciate Coach B for that.”
That partnership has since blossomed into a strong friendship both on and off the field, but the pair did not initially immediately click.
Newton says he thought Randolph was “a pretty boy” when they first met, while Randolph questioned Newton’s hairstyle. Though their chemistry is strong now, their friendship started and developed by coincidence, as they frequently ran into each other at the training football facilities getting extra reps.
“When he first got here, I was a sophomore, two different positions, really didn’t talk that much. Then, COVID happened,” Randolph said. “We really didn’t talk that much, then over the summer going into last year, we tried to get closer and closer with the coaching staff change. Sometimes I’d come to the facilities late at night and he was there, or he’d come up and I was there.
“We just noticed that we’re always here together, always trying to get better in a way. We just started hanging out, getting real close.”
Randolph and Newton reaped the benefits of a coaching change, and that translated into career-best campaigns. After playing a combined nine games in his first two years at Illinois, Randolph saw the field in 10 contests in 2021 and made seven starts. He also recorded 42 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, one forced fumble, one interception, and 4.0 sacks.
Though he finished the 2020 season relatively low on the depth chart, Randolph says his work throughout the offseason played a big part in earning more game time under Bielema.
“It’s been a long, long road for me, playing football,” Randolph said. “Going into that year, in the spring, I was like a three or four on the depth chart. I just put my head down, just working and working. I worked really hard during the offseason, so I knew something had to come out of it, so it all worked out.”
That offseason work led to earning an All-Big Ten honorable mention nod from the media last season, and Randolph was named to Athlon Sports’ preseason all-conference third team ahead of this year’s opener.
Newton played all eight games as a true freshman in the COVID-19-shortened season, though he only made two starts at defensive tackle.
He exploded onto the scene in 2021, starting in 11 of the Fighting Illini’s 12 games. The Florida native registered 50 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss, and 3.0 sacks, all of which are career-highs, and he was recognized with All-Big Ten honorable mention honors by the media following his second collegiate season.
Now a preseason all-conference fourth-team selection by Athlon Sports, Newton says he did not expect to take on such a big role on an otherwise older defensive unit, but he was glad to see his hard work get recognized and rewarded.
“Throughout practice, I always took a lot of reps,” Newton said. “It wasn’t expected. I thought it’d be half and half, but I always want to make the plays and help the defense however I can, so I enjoyed it.”
The pair is now closer than ever, and the law firm is back for another season in the second year of defensive coordinator Ryan Walters‘ system. Though Newton still thinks Randolph is a pretty boy, Randolph says he “lowkey likes” Newton’s hair, and the pair is ready to head back into the trenches.
Randolph and Newton are off to a hot start to their 2022 campaigns. Newton has 11 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1.0 sacks, and three quarterback hurries, while Randolph has 10 total tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss through two games. Newton graded as one of the top defenders in the nation at Indiana, leading the country in pressures (9) and QB hits (5).
Court is back in session.
“We’ve just gotten so much closer,” Randolph said. “We hang out a whole lot more, and now I know his strengths, his weaknesses; he knows mine. I just feel like when you know that much about a person on the field, it’s only right to be that close off the field as well.”