Asmussen: STM's Strauser in 'uncharted waters'

The decade-old school just hit an athletic milestone, courtesy of John Strauser.

Earlier this week, the St. Thomas More senior-to-be became the first football player to earn a Big Ten scholarship offer. Illinois made the call, with more schools expected to follow.

Northwestern had an assistant coach at St. Thomas More on Friday. And Purdue is involved, too.

"It's extremely exciting," Strauser said. "I know it's uncharted waters. It's definitely a good step for STM. I don't look at it as an individual thing. There's a lot of good players on our team.

"It's an honor."

The Illinois offer wasn't the first for Strauser from a BCS school. Earlier, Pitt asked the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder if he'd like to play for the ACC-bound Panthers. Strauser also has offers from Northern Illinois and Illinois State.

St. Thomas More coach Dan Hennessey isn't surprised by the interest in Strauser. He said Strauser has the frame and explosiveness to excel in college.

"When Illinois started showing interest and Pitt offered, I said, 'Well, that will start the ball rolling,' " Hennessey said.

"He's the complete package."

Projected as a defensive end in college, The News-Gazette All-Area first-teamer won't be rushed into a choice.

"I'm still kind of exploring options right now," Strauser said. "There's no set date when you have to make a decision.

"It would be nice to get it done before my football season because then I can focus on what we have going on at STM. I feel like we have a team that can win a conference championship and, hopefully, win a state championship."

Hennessey wants Strauser to make the best choice and isn't worried about the timing.

"I said to John, 'This is your life. I'll help you any way I can,' " Hennessey said.

Strauser won't be the first member of his family to play college football. His oldest brother Matt played at Princeton before his career ended because of a back problem. His older brother Dave is an offensive lineman at Penn.

"I wish they had more kids," Hennessey said.

Strauser's dad, Dave, an Illinois professor, played football at Wisconsin. And his uncle, Paul Chryst, is the first-year head coach at Pitt after serving as offensive coordinator with the Badgers. Another uncle, Geep, is the quarterbacks coach with the San Francisco 49ers. Strauser's mom, Dolly, was a track standout at Wisconsin.

Illinois first showed interest in Strauser after Tim Beckman was hired in December. Strauser went to as many Illini spring practices as he could and has been receiving letters from Illinois assistant Alex Golesh, who recruits the area.

"Things just kind of developed over the last couple of weeks," Strauser said.

While Illinois thinks of Strauser as a defensive end or linebacker, Northern Illinois projects him at tight end. Pitt thinks of him as a defensive end.

Strauser, who just turned 17, has lived in Champaign for seven years. He didn't grow up an Illinois fan. His favorite teams were the ones coached by his uncles.

"I root for family," Strauser said.

The chance to play close to home interests Strauser.

"I said to my parents, 'It would be pretty cool if your high school teammates, your high school coaches, your friends you grew up with, could still watch you play,' " Strauser said.

The college choice will be left to Strauser.

"I think John has been very diligent and very respectful of the process," Dave Strauser said.

"The most important thing to us as parents was getting the right football and education combination. One of our criteria is looking at good academic schools. Certainly, Illinois would fit that."

"There's no dream school," John Strauser said. "I'm looking for the fit. Looking for the right coaches, right kind of people. That's the biggest thing for me."

The good thing for the Strausers after sending two kids to the pricey Ivy League: free school.

"The Ivy League isn't free," Dave Strauser said.

Wes is more. He's back home at Rochester for a couple of weeks, working out at the high school where he became the state's top player.

Later in June, Wes Lunt will return to Stillwater, Okla., to prepare for his fall assignment: Oklahoma State starting quarterback.

The 2011 News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year enrolled in college in January and won the job vacated by NFL first-round draft pick Brandon Weeden.

"He has real arm talent, pocket presence and accuracy," Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. "As we kept going on in the spring, he kept getting better and better. For what we wanted to do, we felt he fit our offense the best among the three guys who competed for the job."

Lunt beat junior Clint Chelf and redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh for the position. The Cowboys will go from having one of the oldest quarterbacks in college football (Weeden was 28) to one of the youngest (Lunt is 18).

"I think he's got the mental makeup to be what you want at quarterback and to be a great player," Monken said. "I think he's a pretty even-keeled kid, very smart. He fits what we do real well. He's not a runner. He's a thrower. That's what we do."

The folks back in Rochester are excited to have Lunt starting in the Big 12. His opener is Sept. 1 against Savannah State.

"I don't think people truly understand the magnitude of it," Rochester coach Derek Leonard said. "I don't think I did until it was announced. You're just happy for him, happy for the family, happy for the town, happy for everybody who has played at Rochester. It's really cool."

Leonard played quarterback himself. He understands the difficulty Lunt will face as a freshman starter.

"There's probably not a harder position in any sport to come in and play as a freshman," Leonard said. "To lead a team, to know everything they're doing, to go fast, no huddle, and to get the job in the spring is truly amazing."

Leonard said the Oklahoma State offense fits Lunt well. And he has a great comfort level with Monken, an Illinois native.

"Monken's unbelievable, and he knows what he's doing," Leonard said. "It's very similar to what we did."

Lunt has put on weight since going to college. He also has improved his arm strength.

"Which I didn't think was possible," Leonard said.

Leonard plans to see Lunt play during his freshman season, but he will have to work around Rochester's schedule. Leonard's team is looking for a third consecutive state title.

Quiet time. What does Lunt think about starting as a freshman? Well, he can't tell you much. Other than a brief comment from Lunt released by the school, the player hasn't been made available to the media. And won't likely be during his freshman season.

Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy has a policy that prevents first-year players from talking to the press.

While it won't be a big deal for the tight ends and linebackers on the team, it will be a problem when it's the quarterback. Lunt, a friendly, well-spoken player, wouldn't likely ever say anything to embarrass himself, his family or his school.

And, in a strange twist, the coach himself has a famous tirade in his past that didn't do his program much good. So, it's OK for the coach to rant and rave, but the smart kid from Rochester can't talk?

Oh, well.

Getting better. Former Illini Mikel Leshoure continues to recover from a torn Achilles tendon suffered during last summer's training camp. The Detroit Lions running back is on pace to be ready for the season.

We checked in with ace reporter Dave Birkett, who covers the Lions for the Detroit Free Press. Here is his assessment:

"He's taking part in workouts so far this spring, but on a limited basis, and he still hasn't cut at full speed. It's a tough injury to come back from because he uses his legs to generate so much power, but it's a good sign for him that the Lions didn't draft a running back as insurance.

"They were high on Leshoure last year before the injury and are counting on him to have some type of role going forward. Of course, he might have to serve a small suspension for his marijuana troubles first."

If Leshoure is healthy, the Lions are a good bet to return to the playoffs and make a run at the NFC North title. Detroit plays the Bears at Soldier Field on Oct. 22, a Monday night.

Going West. News-Gazette All-State running back Ty Isaac had his pick of colleges, but he couldn't resist the temptation of Student Body Right.

The Joliet Catholic superstar made a commitment to Southern Cal, the same school where Reggie Bush, Charles White and O.J. Simpson played.

As a junior, Isaac ran for more than 2,000 yards and 45 touchdowns. He saved his best for last, gaining 515 yards and scoring six touchdowns in the state title game.

National recruiting expert Tom Lemming isn't thrilled with Isaac's choice. He points to the struggles of past Chicago players at Southern Cal, including receiver Kyle Prater. The former News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year from Proviso West left the Trojans after two seasons and is now at Northwestern.

"It hasn't worked out for anybody yet from Chicago," Lemming said. "He likes the pro-style offense. The ironic thing was he's the first player from Joliet Catholic who didn't go to Notre Dame that they wanted. They weren't even in the final three."

Isaac's decision came down to Southern Cal, Michigan and Auburn.

"USC has great recruiters, and they have a great track record," Lemming said.

New face. Illinois hired Tim Knox as its new director of football operations. Knox replaces Adrian Melendez, who worked for seven years on Ron Zook's staff.

Knox joins the Illinois staff after working 15 years at Western Michigan. He was the Broncos' director of football operations for the past 11 years.

The Ohio native will handle team travel, summer camps and Camp Rantoul. He also will help coordinate community service for the team.

Making a list. Illinois senior Graham Pocic is on the initial watch list for the Rimington Trophy, which goes to the nation's top center. Other Big Ten players on the list include Iowa's James Ferentz, Wisconsin's Travis Frederick, Indiana's Will Matte, Penn State's Matt Stankiewitch and Northwestern's Brandon Vitabile.

Illinois linebacker Jonathan Brown is on the watch list for the Lott IMPACT Trophy, which goes to the nation's top defensive player. Other Big Ten candidates include Wisconsin's Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, Michigan State's Max Bullough, Penn State's Gerald Hodges, Michigan's Jordan Kovacs, Purdue's Kawann Short, Ohio State's John Simon and Nebraska's Baker Steinkuhler.

Good plan. Starting after the 2014 season, the Big 12 and SEC champions will meet in a bowl. Maybe.

It's very likely the leagues will provide at least half of the entries in the new four-team playoff. What the new alignment will really be is a battle for second place at a destination to be determined.

The leagues are going to take bids for the new game. Look for bowls beyond the BCS games to get involved. And look for the two leagues to make a ton of money on the team. Whatever bowl lands the game will get quality opponents and, occasionally, a league champion.

Difficult to see a downside for the leagues, which are matching the Big Ten vs. Pac-12 deal with the Rose Bowl.

Taking over. Add Bucky Babcock to the list of former Illini now working as coaches.

A four-year starting offensive lineman during the Ron Turner era, Babcock is the new head coach at Rockford Jefferson. He previously worked as an assistant at Rockford College.

Babcock has plenty of work to do at Jefferson, which went 7-11 the past two seasons. Before that, the J-Hawks were on a 4-41 skid.

Bob Asmussen covers college football for The News-Gazette. Reach him at 217-351-5233 or asmussen@news-gazette.com.

On the way

The following players have made a commitment to join the Illinois football program in 2013:

NAME POS. SCHOOL

Aaron Bailey QB Bolingbrook

Dillan Cazley DB Charleston

Jesse Chadwell OL Clarkston (Mich.)

Jarrod Clements DE Trotwood-Madison (Ohio)

Reon Dawson DB Trotwood-Madison (Ohio)

Christian DiLauro TE Green (Ohio)

Kendrick Foster RB Peoria Richwoods

Kenton Gibbs DT Detroit Cass Tech

Merrick Jackson DT Belleville Althoff

Austin Schmidt OL Olentangy (Ohio)

 

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jturner wrote on May 28, 2012 at 12:05 pm

Bob, you need to let go of the Gandy rant. You seem to bring it up every opportunity that you can. He's a successful, respect coach who lashed out at a reporter that he (and many others) thought was out of line.  Reports in general are a thin skinned bunch. As far as not doing his program "much good", I've read a number of articles indicating that his rant was very favorably received by recruits who appreciated that he was defending a player attacked in the media.

BaytownILLINI wrote on May 28, 2012 at 8:05 pm

Grundy made himself look like a complete idiot.  No one, I repeat no one thought it did any good whatsoever for OSU.  Everyone thought it depicted him as an idiot and made both he and his program look terrible!

jturner wrote on May 29, 2012 at 1:05 pm

Baytown,  you must not read comment sections, letters to the editors, message boards or listen at all to talk radio. Uninimity is a rare situation.  "No one" and "everyone" are not categories that seem to apply to anything - motherhood, apple pie or the OSU football coach.  There were in fact commentators at the time that agreed with him.  Certainly not his finest hour, but to say no one supported him is hyperbole.