Asmussen: Martin ecstatic to join hometown Illini

He's a straight-A student who scored a 33 on his ACT. He's a member of his high school's choir who will likely have a major role in an upcoming musical. He's a standout swimmer. He plans to study mechanical engineering in college, just like his two older brothers (Dan and Andrew).

Oh, yeah, he can pass the football back between his legs like an NFL long snapper. Which might someday be an option.

First, Centennial's Michael Martin has to play in college. And he landed his dream school. Not Alabama. Not Ohio State. Not Southern Cal.

For Martin, Illinois is the only place to be.

"I dreamed of playing for them since I was little," Martin said.

He will be a preferred walk-on at Illinois, which could be called Long Snapper U. Former Illini Adam Lingner, Ed Brady and Nathan Hodel had long NFL careers as long snappers.

Two-year starter Zak Pedersen is back for his senior season. There will be an opening after that. One Martin hopes to fill.

How did Martin end up at Illinois? You have to start with last summer, when he attended the school's specialist camp and performed well. He attended a game during the 2011 season as a recruit, but when Ron Zook and his staff were fired, Martin had to start over.

New coach Tim Beckman made the rounds to the area high schools, including Centennial. Martin met with Beckman and expressed his interest in playing at Illinois.

"We hit it off," Martin said. "He seemed very positive."

Beckman told Martin, "We'll get back to you." And assistant coach Alex Golesh followed through. After looking at tape of Martin's long snapping, Illinois offered a walk-on spot.

"At this point I've been told I should be going to training camp," Martin said. "But because of the position I play, I may get pushed out for a defensive end who needs to go."

Martin follows Illinois closely. He knew Pedersen was running out of eligibility.

"The way I see it, the job is going to go to whoever works the hardest at it," Martin said.

There were other options. Penn was a possibility. So were Harvard and MIT.

"Then this came about and I really could not turn down such a great opportunity," Martin said.

Martin's musical background is likely to be a hot topic once he joins the Illini. He's enjoyed the mix of sports, academics and music.

"The way that Centennial does it, it makes it fun for everybody," Martin said. "You can have a jock performing right next to a Poindexter and we don't have a problem with it. It's just the way things work."

A Poindexter?

"Someone who is just a student and doesn't do much else," Martin said.

Martin won't be able to do that at Illinois. The combination of football and mechanical engineering will be "quite the challenge."

He will take summer courses to get ahead in his schoolwork, while also attending training sessions with the team.

"They've got a great academic support team at Illinois," Martin said. "It's student-athlete, and student does have to come before athlete. Sacrifices will have to be made."

Martin joins the growing list of former Chargers who have played at Illinois. Tailback Mikel Leshoure went from Centennial to Illinois to the Detroit Lions. Defensive back Kaemen Mitchell is on the team now. Past Chargers at Illinois include Lenny Willis, Jacob Willis, Patrick Rouse, Tyler Rouse, Jay Ramshaw, Jerry Ramshaw, Dustin Ward and Robby Long.

Centennial coach Mike McDonnell is happy to have Martin joining the list. Though he doesn't push players toward particular schools, he likes the Illinois fit for Martin.

"Michael always wanted to go to the University of Illinois," McDonnell said.

The next step for Martin is to get onto the field. Martin will need to add weight to handle the physical pounding of the position. Often, the long snapper is the first player in position to make a tackle on punts.

"He's got the whole package, he just needs to put on about 20 pounds," McDonnell said.

A three-year starter, Martin "saved us a lot of ballgames," McDonnell said.

The coach remembers one in particular. Instead of lining up the usual 13 yards deep, the punter was 17 yards behind the long snapper.

"Michael didn't bat an eyelash," McDonnell said. "He just hit him right in the belt buckle with the ball, just like he should at 13 (yards). It shows you the strength he has in his snaps."

If other long snapping news ...

Taybor Pepper, the son of former Illini offensive lineman Cam Pepper and Urbana native Donna McGuire Pepper, will be a preferred walk-on at Michigan.

Pepper, who played at Saline (Mich.) High School, had interest from Purdue and others. Proximity to Ann Arbor played a role in his decision. So did a chance to compete for the starting job early in his career.

The Wolverines open the season in Dallas against national champion Alabama. If all goes as planned, Pepper will be part of the traveling squad.

Camp Rantoul update

Beckman, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas and other members of the Illinois staff made a recent visit to Camp Rantoul.

They checked out the facilities and talked to local officials about the school's longtime summer home.

"It's a unique situation," Beckman said. "It's a recruiting tool, too. You can say, 'Hey, we're one of the only teams in the Big Ten that goes off into an NFL atmosphere.' "

In the next few weeks, Beckman will decide if he wants to continue the tradition. The biggest concern is the openness of Camp Rantoul.

"It's our first year and there's some newness with what we're doing," Beckman said. "Our opponents don't realize all of the things we're going to do because we're not on film."

One possibility would be for the team to go to Rantoul early during training camp, when the emphasis is more on individual technique and less on the playbook.

Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore was on the trip. He has experienced Camp Rantoul and was able to explain the different components.

Watch party

Beckman has hired three "encouragers," who check to make sure the Illini are in class and paying attention.

"We're excited about them being involved in the program," Beckman said. "It's an accountability thing for our football players now."

The retired educators have had some class-checking help from the Illinois coaches. They have been out at times to make sure the players are following their schedules.

Safety first

College football rulesmakers are pushing toward a change in kickoffs. Instead of setting the ball at the 30, the ball will likely move to the 35. It will create more touchbacks and cut into injuries.

"Anything that comes with player safety, I'm all for," Beckman said.

Internal competition

The Illinois players have been divided into eight teams for their winter conditioning competition.

The team held a draft, with defensive lineman Austin Teitsma the first chosen.

On Monday, the players compete in speed drills. On Tuesday, there is agility work. Thursday is a combat day, and Friday is a weight challenge. Players lose points if they aren't on time or they miss off-the-field assignments.

A good move

When it comes to smart career decisions, it's hard to argue against the one made before the 2011 season by former Illini assistant Dan Disch.

Wanting to run his own defense, Disch left the comfort zone of Ron Zook's staff to become the coordinator at Southern Miss.

And then the fun started. The Golden Eagles made dramatic improvements on defense, finishing seventh in the country in passing efficiency defense, 26th in scoring defense and 29th in total defense. In 2010, the year before Disch arrived, Southern Miss was 75th, 81st and 47th in the three categories.

Even better for Disch and head coach Larry Fedora, they went 12-2, knocking off undefeated Houston in the Conference USA title game. Disch's defense dominated Houston quarterback Case Keenum, knocking him out of a likely Heisman Trophy finalist spot. Disch's guys befuddled the Cougars.

When Fedora took over at North Carolina, he asked Disch to remain as his defensive coordinator.

"I felt if we had a great year that certainly this could happen," Disch said. "You never know where you're going to end up. I didn't go there with the idea that I would only be there a year. But you certainly know in the back of your mind that Coach Fedora was a young up-and-comer and if things worked out he would be moving on."

There's a hefty raise included. Disch's pay has more than doubled to $400,000.

Disch will see a familiar face on the staff at North Carolina. Former Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has been hired as associate head coach for defense.

"I love the guy," Disch said. "We work well together. He's a great coach."

During the 2011 season, most of Disch's family remained in Champaign. Again, another smart move. He won't have to uproot the family after a year in Hattiesburg, Miss. Instead, they can join him for what should be a long tenure in Chapel Hill. Disch has a three-year deal at the start.

Pro choice

After originally joining the staff at UAB, former Illinois offensive line coach Joe Gilbert is now an assistant with the Indianapolis Colts. Former Illini assistant Mike Gillhamer is now the secondary coach for Chuck Pagano.

Bob Asmussen covers college football for The News-Gazette. Reach him at or 217-351-5233.

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JimOATSfan wrote on February 19, 2012 at 1:02 am

Hey Michael Martin congrats on the preferred walk-on slot and thanks for choosing the Illini.

For what it's worth ... here is Patrick Mannelly's website on long snapping. A Dukie who was out a full year with a mysterious hip injury (O-lineman and long snapper), he is Mr Longetivity with the Chicago Bears.  Just in case you haven't discovered it to date. Pretty sure he is happy to dialogue with interested players coming up too.

Hard to believe that Coach Disch is back in a two-qualified-guys-to run-the defense at North Carolina. Sounds awfully close to what he went thru here at Illinois as a co-defensive coordinator.

And the mens BB team: yea it sucks, but in the big picture it means little. Your still Illini, we still love you guys. Coaches too. Family is family, not just family that wins everything all the time.  Go Illini!


oandb wrote on February 20, 2012 at 11:02 am

Tuley-Tillman and Bosch already gone to Michigan. Nice work by our new staff.