The Great J. Leman -- Passion and Presence

You can talk to him a thousand times and never feel like you are talking to a college student. There is too much presence, too much awareness of his surroundings, to think that J. Leman is just another college kid trying to get a degree. But spend some time around the Illinois football program and you find Leman is anything but just another kid.

I met J. for the first time last November in Chicago at the team hotel the night before the Northwestern game. Defensive co-coordinator Dan Disch, then just the linebackers coach, introduced us.

"Nice to meet you Frank," J. replied after the introduction. "What brings you to town? Not just to hang with him (looking at Disch, grinning) I hope."

I assured him my pursuit was much bigger.

"Good," he said with a smirk. "Any way, glad you made it up. Look forward to seeing you around."

Then an hour or so later, when J. and Brit Miller walked by.

"Brit, c'mere, want you to meet Frank, good friend of Coach Disch and Coach Zook. Frank this is Brit, another linebacker. How is the trip going so far? Still hanging out with those guys? Any way, have fun. See you around."

Told Disch later, and Zook, that J. Leman was anything but your normal college student. Most, or at least many, college students, athletes or not, are reserved when meeting adults. Shy, at times a bit awkward. Generally polite and respectful, but not sure what to say.

Not this cat. J. Leman owns the room the minute he walks into it. It is a presence rarely seen in those his age. But one that clearly has helped lift him from a young outside linebacker not sure of a position to maybe the best, most dominant middle linebacker in America.

Leman isn't the fastest guy on a track, but I have seen few college middle linebackers play faster. His uncanny instincts and electric first step get him near the play just after the snap. And his ferocity of nature, the kind which makes a nice kid off the field salivate at the thought of blowing up an offensive player, or play, rears its head.

About the, J. Leman blows up something.

"He is a terrific player," coach Ron Zook said. "Really good player. We had to find the position that best suited him and we did. And he has been making plays ever since."

A year ago, Leman led the linebacker-proud Big Ten in tackles. Then to start this season, he recorded a whopping 20 in a season-opening loss to Missouri.

But Leman is more than just a tackling machine. At 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, with a long wingspan, he defends the entire middle of the field. Base defense, nickel, you name it, he is never off the field. And although playing in space against faster offensive players is not his forte, even that area of his game has improved.

"I'll say this," Disch said. "He's a hard guy to ever take out of a game. We leave him in on all passing downs because we just think we are better when he is on the field. And it's just hard to get him out.

"In base (formation) late in the game, I try and get Sam (Carson)in a series here or there to rest J., and Sam does fine. Nothing wrong with Sam. But J. is so good, it's hard to take him out."

Part of that is that he is just that good of a player. The other part is mental for the rest of the team.

"He just makes everyone better," Disch said. "He directs traffic. He knows where to be. He makes sure everyone else does, too."

And almost by osmosis, he affects their play. Somehow, some way, when J. Leman is around, guys just play better. Even a bit harder. It is that presence again.

They all know that under the helmet is their on-field leader. Son of a Champaign minister and raised in the town he attends college, Leman is the face of the Illinois defense, maybe the face of the team. Around campus, his broad shoulders and long hair make him easy to find.

Meanwhile, opposing offenses have done all they can not to find him. To no avail.

Now, although he has been very good so far, Leman is back in his wheelhouse. The next four opponents -- Penn State, Wisconsin, at Iowa, Michgian -- are physical teams hoping to pound the rock. Which Leman loves.

"That style fits him a little better," Disch said.

And what would fit him best is a bowl bid, the first of his terrific career. It has been a long time waiting for J. and a number of his teammates. So are they thinking about it already?

Nope. Can't be. J. Leman knows the key to that is live in the moment and worry about only one game -- the upcoming one. If Illinois is to make a bowl, it will be because of that.

"He knows what to say to them," Disch said. "And they know to listen."

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