CHAMPAIGN — Decked out in a dark gray pinstripe suit and light green tie, J Leman’s eyes were focused in on the Michigan-Indiana game 90 minutes before Illinois kicked off against Wisconsin on Saturday night.
For the former Illinois All-America linebacker, who paced the sidelines as BTN’s reporter at his former home stadium, football is never far from his mind.
“That’s a great play right there,” Leman said while watching a television monitor perched from the press box ceiling as Indiana scored a touchdown.
Once he took his eyes off the Indiana-Michigan game, Leman stayed in analyst mode. The Champaign native said it is hard to watch some of the defensive struggles Illinois has had this year.
“But they’re really young defensively,” he said. “On the defensive line and the secondary, they’re young. They’re going to make mistakes. I remember being on defenses with seven, eight or nine starters that were sophomores, and we were not very good. They’re better than we were.”
Leman sounds like Tim Beckman and the other Illinois assistant coaches who work with the defense when he dissects the biggest problem surrounding the Illinois “D.”
“They’ve got to learn how to tackle better,” Leman said. “I see guys in position, but I don’t see them finishing plays.”
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Saturday night was the fourth Illinois game Leman has worked this season for BTN. He’s had the view from the sidelines twice and in the booth as the analyst twice.
Which does he prefer?
“I like the booth more because you get more action,” he said, “but I like the sideline because you’re down on the field and you see a different perspective.”
He’s not sure yet what his future TV schedule is the rest of the football season.
“I get that in two-week chunks, and I’ll get the next two games on Monday,” Leman said. “No rest, but looking forward to it. I always like to watch Illinois, and I’m excited about possibly getting the chance to see them in November.”
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With the red helmets Wisconsin unveiled along with the red pants and white tops, the Badgers sure looked like Indiana. Illinois wore a distinctive look, going with its all-orange attire for the first time in nine years.
“I think that’s who we are,” Leman said. “Uniforms never make or break a game, but they do get you a little amped. If you use it sparingly enough, you still keep that special effect.”
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Standing with crutches and a bulky knee brace on his left knee, Austin Roberts was easy to spot among the plethora of recruits on hand for Saturday night’s game.
The Rice Lake (Wis.) linebacker, a Class of 2014 commit for Illinois, had surgery three weeks ago after he tore the ACL in his left knee during Rice Lake’s third game of the season on Sept. 6.
“Typically they say nine months to recover, but it depends on the person,” Roberts said. “Nine months from now is when I’ll come to Illinois, so that’d be nice, but anything less than that is great.”
Roberts bucked the trend in picking Illinois ahead of the in-state Badgers, who were interested in him but had not extended an offer before the linebacker chose Illinois in June. Rice said he didn’t hear too much grief from his teammates.
“Mainly from the teachers and kids in the school that weren’t on the team,” Roberts said with a laugh. “It was tough (with the injury). I would go up in the box and help coach some, and (Friday) night I was finally able to get down on the field and help, so I was able to do some stuff on the sidelines.”
Roberts said the Illinois coaches have stayed in touch with him on a consistent basis since the injury.
“They’ve been absolutely amazing,” he said. “They’ve been calling me once a week and sending me letters all the time. They’re always wondering how I’m doing and how much better I’m getting. They’ve been outstanding.”
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Class of 2014 commit Nick Allegretti took in his first Illinois game in Champaign on Saturday night. The Lincoln-Way East center was at the Illinois-Washington game at Soldier Field but had not made his way down I-57 for a game until Saturday.
“I think there’s been huge improvements made on both sides of the ball,” Allegretti said before the game. “The energy that I’ve seen has been huge. I’m ready to see the atmosphere and glad the success is picking up a little bit.”
Allegretti, who committed to Illinois on March 11, hours after Illinois picked up its first commitment in the 2014 class from Centerville (Ohio) defensive lineman Tito Odenigbo, is glad his recruitment is finished.
“Now I don’t have to worry about it,” he said. “I can talk to the coaches and talk to the recruits, so it’s cool to be ahead of it.”
Allegretti, who qualified for the Class 3A state wrestling finals at the State Farm Center last winter at 285 pounds, doesn’t plan on graduating early to take part in spring practices.
“I thought about it, but I love wrestling too much to give it up,” Allegretti said. “I’ve got to finish my senior year and hopefully go out and get a state championship.”
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Two Class of 2014 commits in attendance Saturday night do plan on graduating from high school at semester so they can take part in spring practices next year.
Quarterback Chayce Crouch from Newark (Ohio) Catholic and wide receiver Mike Dudek from Neuqua Valley are set to enroll early. Crouch said he talked with recruiting coordinator Alex Golesh a few times about graduating early and decided that was the right move for him.
“He told me it would serve as a huge advantage for me,” Crouch said. “Coming from a small school, I think it’s going to help me a lot getting acclimated to the big campus. I think I really needed that in terms of getting used to the college life.”
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Centennial quarterback Jimmy Fitzgerald was among the recruits on hand Saturday night. The Class of 2015 prospect does not have a timeline on when he’ll make a decision. Illinois is his only FBS offer so far, and Fitzgerald said he hears from Beckman and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit the most on the Illinois staff. Fitzgerald said he hears frequently from Duke, Indiana, Notre Dame and Purdue.
“I’ll just finish up my junior season and see what happens after that,” Fitzgerald said. “Unless something arises, I’ll definitely sit down with my family and my coaches and talk about it.”
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Chuck Long arrived a day before Saturday night’s game. The former Iowa quarterback and BTN analyst, who served as color commentator on the broadcast, had a chance to enjoy some Papa Del’s pizza on Friday evening.
“That’s a good joint,” Long said with a laugh.
While Long enjoys the local dining options Champaign-Urbana has to offer, he doesn’t exactly envision a bowl game in the picture for Illinois this year. Maybe next season. That isn’t to say the former college coaching veteran isn’t impressed with what Illinois has accomplished at the midway point of its season.
“I think they’ve made great strides this year in just getting an offense in place that they really need,” Long said. “It’s a good offense because it’s marketing Illinois right now. Even if Illinois isn’t winning, come out and watch them play just because the offense is so exciting and unpredictable. This year would exceed expectations if they go to a bowl game.”
Long called Cubit’s system one of the most “unique” in the Big Ten. That may hold true, but defense is where Illinois has failed to generate any sort of positive reaction.
“Right now all of Illinois’ playmakers are on offense and not on defense,” Long said. “It’s going to take some time defensively to shore that up, and that’s when you really start getting to bowl games. It’s a big recruiting year for them to get some guys in here with talent and some speed, especially on the defensive side.”
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Long keeps an extra eye on quarterbacks during games. It’s to be expected given the success of his college career and subsequent coaching career. Who wins the starting quarterback job for Illinois in 2014 is an aspect he’s intently watching once Nathan Scheelhaase graduates. Wes Lunt and Aaron Bailey figure to play prominently in that competition with backup Reilly O’Toole a possible option.
“I’ve heard a lot of good things about Wes Lunt,” Long said. “I think they have a good situation there. It’s just a matter of experience.”
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Michigan State’s stingy defense was on full display in shutting out Purdue on Saturday. The Spartans will visit Champaign next Saturday. The tough Big Ten schedule Illinois finds itself with doesn’t do any favors for a young team like the Beckman’s.
“It factors in,” Long said of the difficult schedule. “You try to build confidence early, and I think they did that with some of their wins early. Now, you hit the meat of your schedule. The important thing is you’ve got to try to keep the confidence level up during this tough stretch, but, at the same time, the Big Ten is unpredictable.”
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Beckman hasn’t memorized the entire list. But what the Illinois coach does know of the 13-member committee that is in charge of selecting the first college football playoff field next season leaves him impressed.
Two of the committee members have ties to the Big Ten in Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez and former Nebraska athletic director and coach Tom Osborne.
“They’ve been unbelievable in this profession,” Beckman said. “I haven’t seen all the names, so I couldn’t make a further assessment, but as long as it’s people who believe in what we do, I’m fine with it. Tom Osborne and Barry Alvarez are what the profession is all about.”