Linebacker Leman Looks Back At His Wild Ride

J Leman is Illinois' first concensus All-American in 12 years. He is a star middle linebacker, but he is equally famous for his love of the University of Illinois and its fans. He relishes the opportunity to give something back to those who have supported and encouraged him. As well as to show the appreciation to so many who hung with him and the Illini through the tough times.

"I want to tell the fans 'Thank you.' Because they stuck with us when it was really hard. You know, anyone who was there the last four years knows it was bleak and really, really hard. I was just happy to give them a season where they could be proud of this team. And to go to the Rose Bowl, something this team hasn't done since '84. I just love those guys so much. They've been supportive through it all."

Kevin Hardy was Illinois' last consensus All-American back in 1995, and he went on to a quality pro career. Leman's team-leading 124 tackles, with 9.5 of those accumulating 25 yards in losses, demonstrates his prowess. Anyone who can help a team transform itself from a 2-10 record one year to a 9-3 record and Rose Bowl berth the next has to be good. But all the post-season accolades have taken him somewhat by surprise.

"You always dream, but I saw this (awards) pretty far out there. I just needed to keep my priorities in line, work hard and good things will happen."

The NFL is likely in J. Leman's immediate future, but did he always dream of a pro career?

"I did, but when I was little I was such a college football fan. I've just loved college football so much. And I actually love the college game more than the NFL because of the emotion. As a little kid, I dreamed of playing college football. It wasn't until I actually got here that I considered going onto the next level. I really do want that now, but when you're little it's more about playing for your school. My priorities changed as I got older, as I want to keep going."

When Leman arrived on the U of I campus, the Champaign Central graduate was a 205 pound unknown with a basketball player's physique. Illinois was his only major college football scholarship offer, which was fine with him because he always loved Illinois. But college football was tough for the youngster until he could build his strength and conditioning and find his proper position.

Coaches at first had trouble finding Leman's true position.

"When I got here, I spent about two weeks at middle linebacker and then got moved to the outside. I moved back from weakside to strongside probably five or six times. I was really a Jack-of-all-trades. Then one spring ball, a couple MIKE's (middle linebackers) got hurt, and Coach Zook asked if I could move over to the middle.

"It worked out great. I just felt a lot more comfortable in the middle. My strength has always been reading and instincts. Reading guards, reading how plays are going. And in this defense, it's more about what the middle linebacker is going to do. On the outside, it's more about reading your receiver to tell if it's run or pass."

Dick Butkus set the standard of excellence for middle linebackers when he toiled for the Illini defenses in the early 1960's. Leman's view of what makes a top middle linebacker proves that little has changed in the intervening years.

"First and foremost, you've got to be tough. You have to be tough and put out unbelieveable effort. Aside from that, instinctiveness and ability to read are all tied together. Knowing what they're going to run and how they're going to attack you is important. Instintiveness and reading the guards and running backs. Also, being a leader in terms of getting the guys on the same page. Giving the defensive line in front of you calls and the guys in back of you signals."

Despite the lofty standard Leman's career established, he believes there are other Illini who can replace him effectively next year.

"We've got a lot of talent, as Martez Wilson showed in his short time. Brit Miller has a chance of being in the middle along with Ian Thomas. And Sam Carson too is a solid backup right now. Even Rodney Pittman is in the room. So there's a lot of players who could make a move."

J Leman has been quoted extensively the last two years, so there is little chance of asking him a question he hasn't heard before. But asking him what he would most wish to say that he hasn't shared previously caused a momentary pause for contemplation. When he finally answered, it was profound and important.

"People love you when you're making touchdown passes or great tackles on the field. They see the great victories. But there's a lot of tough roads in college football. And I'm not just talking about losing games. Being injured and not knowing whether you're going to come back (for example). You're a person, too.

"People judge you on your performance, but sometimes I wish people would realize these guys are good guys. Just because they miss some tackles on Saturdays, they're not bad people. They go through a lot of the same hardships other people go through, and sometimes a guy's performance is affected by all the tough stuff that's going on around him. Sometimes, I think it is unfair for folks to judge other players who don't really know what's going on at home."

Leman agreed that football is a game of inches, that some of his great plays this year were extremely close to having opposite results. And the plays that were made this year by inches were missed last year by the same tiniest of margins. J admits to being fortunate in the Penn State game as he was beaten on two pass plays over the middle.

"That's the difference between being a hero and a scapegoat. I had tons of backslaps on me after that game. And truth be told, if I don't knock that pass away or get that interception, they go on to win that game. It's a game of inches. Success is a combination of hard work, doing the right things, and a little bit of luck."

If anyone has deserved some good fortune it is J Leman, the thinking man's linebacker. He has combined hard work, dedication, intelligence, leadership and a love of football and the University of Illinois to achieve success. He sets a standard that others would do well to emulate.

Thanks for everything, J Leman!

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