Leman Anchors Solid Linebacker Corps

The second in a series of position previews takes a look at the position that produced Butkus and Howard and Hardy and Rice and Holocek and others. Many schools can boast volumes of great linebackers, but can many run out a lineup like that? Which is why the 2007 linebackers play with such pride -- there is heritage to uphold.

Coaches talk about it, crave it, try to create it and absolutely cherish it when they find it, legitimately find it, in one of their own.

Leadership.

Which is why J. Leman is such a jewel for the Illini, his fans, his teammates, and yes – his coaches. He is a very good player. He is an even better leader. He is, best of all, a person respected by all who come in contact with the Illinois football team.

And the senior's presence as the rock in the middle of the Illinois defense is why many are thinking of the Illini as some sort of a sleeper in the Big Ten this year. It also is why many believe the Illinois defense will be special again.

As we look at the linebacking corps of the 2007 Illini, that preview starts with one guy.

MIDDLE LINEBACKER: Leman isn't the fastest guy you ever will see. In fact, he probably is a step slower than you want a Big Ten linebacker to be. So how does a guy like that become first-team all-conference and lead a great league in tackles?

"Because he knows how to play," Coach Ron Zook said. "J. Leman is as solid as they come. Players respect him. Opponents respect him. I respect him."

And when he is on the field, opponents are aware of him.

"We need J. on the field," linebacker coach and co-coordinator Dan Disch said. "He knows where to be and where everyone else is supposed to be. That is a big part of this."

Leman (6-2, 237) is a fierce tackler, physical run support player and leader. He is a middle linebacker who stays on the field on third downs and rarely gets a rest.

When he does need a rest, the backup is junior Sam Carson (6-1, 245). Carson is a mini-Leman, but not nearly as effective. Smart, tough, good tackler, good in run support, but doesn't run nearly well enough to go sideline-to-sideline. And even though third teamer Rakheem Smith (6-1, 250), a sophomore, is the best physical specimen of the group, he ultimately still could move to tackle and be told to gain 30 pounds. He already is one of the strongest players on the team.

End result – Leman needs to play.

WEAKSIDE LINEBACKER: Senior Antonio Steele (6-0, 218) needed about half a season to make the transition from the JUCO ranks and become a solid, Big Ten linebacker. He was unspectacular and could have made more plays, but is rarely out of position and was the fastest Illinois linebacker a year ago. Steele had a terrific spring and is clearly entrenched at the starter – for now. The "for now" is added because a runaway freight train is headed this way. A freight train named…

Martez Wilson. The spectacular 6-3, 245-pound freshman will be, by far, the team's best athlete at linebacker. Maybe, next to Vontae Davis and Arrelious Benn, the team's best athlete period. He outruns receivers and bull rushes linemen. The big story in off-season summer workouts was that Illinois finally had a linebacker who could run with Jeff Cumberland. He covered him like a glove.

Wilson probably ultimately will be a middle linebacker, but will rush the passer in certain situations his entire career. For now, he probably gets a look on the weakside. He probably will push senior Anthony Thornhill (6-2, 221) to third team quickly.

STRONG SIDE LINEBACKER: The good news is that junior Brit Miller (6-1, 251) is a very good player. Big and strong and instinctive like Leman, fast like Steele. The bad news is he plays a position that often is replaced in the nickel defenses. And in this age of spread offenses, the nickel defense is on the field most of the time. But don't be surprised to see Illinois resist the nickel at times you wouldn't expect to keep Miller on the field. They think the guy is that good. And he could wind up inside next to Martez Wilson for his senior year.

Behind him, junior Rodney Pittman (6-2, 235) is even more athletic. Coaches have had high hopes for him, but he has been a bit slow in developing. Pittman has all the tools and is a good kid who works hard, but he needs to make more plays. A guy that big and that fast and that athletic should make his presence felt more than it has been.

Overall, this is a group that is very solid with a big time leader. Need to avoid injuries here and could have a big season.

ZOOK QUOTE: "Coach Disch has done a great, great job with those guys. Boy they play hard for him. It all starts with J., players respond to him. We need J. He has to play well. And he will."

FRANGIE TAKE: Leman is tremendous, so much so, that a guy his speed should come off the field on third down because he can get lost in coverage, but he is such a gamer it makes sense for him to stay in. Miller keeps getting better but isn't on the field enough. I'd like to see Steele make more plays, even though coaches love the fact that he runs and is never out of position. And sit back and enjoy ‘Tez – rarely does a guy come along with that kind of size, speed, strength, toughness and game sense. He is nasty. Can you say Kevin Hardy? Can you say Urlacher?

Illini Inquirer Top Stories