This Saturday against Northwestern, Illini fans will get their last opportunity to honor that large group of special people playing their last home game. What they may have lacked in superior athleticism, they countered with outstanding leadership and commitment to return Illinois to a place of national prominence in football.
They might have quit long ago, but they continued to work and improve. Many are fifth year seniors, and their cumulative record prior to this season was 8 wins and 38 painful losses. They never gave up hope, and they whipped their bodies into top condition to take the fight to the Big Ten and prove themselves worthy of a place of honor rather than shame. They are true transformers, like the toys they may have played with as youngsters.
Any discussion of the seniors must begin with J. Leman. The hometown Champaign Central product with the basketball legs and only one Division 1 scholarship offer, Leman made himself into a champion through hard work, dedication, intelligence and intensity. He now has a chance to play pro ball. J has been the emotional and intellectual leader of the Illini defense ever since moving from outside linebacker to the middle two years ago. There is no one presently on the Illinois roster who can replace him adequately.
Defensive tackle Chris Norwell arrived at Illinois five years ago from Cincinnati as a basketball playing tight end. Due to a lack of quality at the defensive tackle spots, Norwell was asked to bulk up and play defense. He now holds the record for most consecutive career starts by an Illini. His pro prospects may be enhanced with a move to the offensive line, but Norwell has given Leman many tackle opportunities by tying up offensive linemen to keep them away from the linebackers.
Mike Ware is a walkon transfer from Wheaton College who has provided valuable minutes as a second string defensive tackle. Anthony Thornhill was a starter under former head coach Ron Turner and shared time at the WILL linebacker spot as recently as last year. Relegated to third team duties this year, Anthony stayed focused on team goals and helped out on special teams.
WILL linebacker Antonio Steele and safety Justin Sanders were recruited out of junior college by Ron Zook, so they are completing their second seasons with the Illini. They have provided much needed speed and tackling ability to upgrade the defense. Defensive backs Tyler Rouse and Drew McMahon, the son of former Illini assistant coach Greg McMahon, walked on from Champaign to help out on special teams and provide depth of leadership.
The hard-hitting safety combo of Justin Harrison and Kevin Mitchell have seen many minutes the last four years, and they compare favorably with other strong Illini tandems such as Bobby Jackson and Muhammed Abdullah from the 2001 team and Antwoine Patton and Ty Washington from the mid 1990's. They may not be the fastest safeties in captivity, but they provided great leadership and stability in the secondary.
Offensively, Martin O'Donnell and Akim Millington have given great leadership in what has become one of Illinois' best offensive lines. They both overcame injuries and other problems to excel in their final years. Once considered question marks, they both now have a chance to play pro ball. Ben Amundsen and Charles Myles were unable to play this year due to injuries. Amundsen has served as a volunteer assistant coach with the offensive line.
Fullback Russ Weil is one of the unsung heroes of this year's offense. He missed the Missouri loss while recovering from a high ankle sprain, but he returned in time to lead the blocking for Rashard Mendenhall on power plays, helping him break the Illinois single season rushing record.
The former two-time state wrestling champion also carried the ball on occasion and made an outstanding catch of a contested pass. He suffered a serious knee injury at Ohio State, so he will be missed against Northwestern in addition to next year. Justin Ijei is a walkon fullback who will also graduate this year.
Receiver Jacob Willis transferred from junior college two years ago. The son of Lenny Willis, Sr., former Ohio State standout and present Illinois administrator, Jacob saw plenty of action last year but was a forgotten man this spring after getting behind in his studies. Willis worked hard to gain eligibility and improve as a receiver, and he has made some important plays this fall.
Receivers DaJuan Warren and Frank Lenti, Jr. haven't received as much playing time this year as previous years, but they provided depth and leadership at a position of need. Warren began as a quarterback, and he might have excelled under the Zook spread offense, but he volunteered to play receiver under Turner. He has been versatile, at times being used on rugby-style punts and throwing option passes. And more than anything, he has continued to work hard for playing time without complaint.
Lenti, son of famed Chicago Mt. Carmel head coach Frank Lenti, Sr., saw his playing time limited to holding for placekicks this year, but he was flawless in his task. For three years, Lenti held for Jason Reda's field goals and extra points, and his trustworthiness can never be overlooked.
Reda has been practically perfect on field goals this year, missing only one extra point and one field goal. Jason has improved every year and now has a reasonable opportunity to play pro ball despite intense competition at that level. His leg is significantly stronger than earlier in his career, and he has become extremely consistent, not only in games but also every practice.
Kyle Knezetic has been the long snapper for the Illini the last four years. The only Illini ever to receive a scholarship to be a long snap specialist, Knezetic has been nearly perfect. Besides having great speed of snaps, he has never had a snap that led to a fumble or possession change. He claims six of his snaps have been imperfect, but they were all handled by the punters or Lenti. The tandem of Reda, Knezetic and Lenti will be difficult to replace.
New recruits may have the athleticism to fill in the gaps next year, but it is doubtful those new players can duplicate or improve upon all the hard work and dedication this senior group brought to the Illini. They became a glue that served as a secure foundation and unifier for a large contingent of hopeful but inexperienced youngsters.
Many have toiled in obscurity. Their contributions will be noticed most once they are gone, when Coach Zook looks for leaders for next year's team. But they have endured the harshest of conditions and lived to fight another day. They never gave up on their dreams of being winners, and now they are.
How can Illini fans ask more of any group of seniors? They deserve a standing ovation as they are introduced prior to the Northwestern game Saturday. They have earned it.