Asmussen | Roundtree hopes to emulate Rice in more ways than one

Asmussen | Roundtree hopes to emulate Rice in more ways than one

When I see an Illinois football player wearing No. 5, I think running back. Mikel Leshoure and Rashard Mendenhall instantly come to mind.

No. 1? Receiver David Williams.

No. 40? Linebacker Dana Howard (welcome back, Hall of Famer).

And No. 97? Defensive end (though listed at linebacker) Simeon Rice.

Third-year coach Lovie Smith knows his Illini history. Which explains why Bobby Roundtree is wearing Rice's old number.

At Largo (Fla.) High School, he was No. 3. But old-school coach Smith prefers old-school numbers. Defensive linemen are supposed to be in the 90s. Makes them look bigger and stronger.

Leave single digits for quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and defensive backs.

"I said, 'Hey Bobby, you're a heckuva player,'" Smith said. "'One of our greatest defensive players to ever come through here wore No. 97. Why don't you wear that number in honor of Simeon Rice?'"

No argument from Roundtree.

"Bobby is a coach's dream," Smith said.

The players have to wear a number. Might as well make sure it has meaning.

Smith saw plenty of Rice in the NFL.

"Simeon Rice is one of the all-time great pass rushers," Smith said.

The coach has studied tape of Rice, with longtime NFL assistant Rod Marinelli compiling a Rice highlight reel.

Confidence is high

Rice set records at Illinois that will never be broken. Or approached.

He had 69 tackles for loss, 12 better than career No. 2 Moe Gardner. Rice knocked back opposing players for a ridiculous 385 yards.

His sack total, 44 1 / 2, is 21 1 / 2 more than No. 2 Scott Davis. Rice has more career sacks than Davis and No. 3 Fred Wakefield combined.

Rice has the most sacks in a season (16, tied with Whitney Mercilus) and a game (five, Washington State offensive linemen still have nightmares).

The No. 3 overall pick by Arizona in the 1996 NFL draft, Rice put the quarterback on the turf 122 times. That should be good enough for an eventual spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

So, with all those numbers, Roundtree must want to follow in Rice's footsteps.

Kinda, sorta.

"Me, personally, I'd rather be better than him," Roundtree said. "I respect everyone before me. But I'd rather be the best."

I promise, Rice would not take offense. He'd be thrilled that Roundtree wants to take a shot at his records.

For a few games in 2017, Roundtree was on pace. He had three sacks in the first two games, bringing the inevitable comparisons to the Illini great. But those sacks were against nonconference opponents. Once in the powerful Big Ten, the sacks slowed, with Roundtree having just one more the rest of the way.

Still, four sacks was good enough to tie for the team lead with James Crawford,

"I didn't produce as much as I wanted to," Roundtree said.

Strength in numbers

A year ago, Roundtree had no idea how much he was going to play.

Now, he's got a to-do list.

"I just want to be stronger," he said. "A leader on the defense. Bring more energy."

The 10 losses were "embarrassing," Roundtree said.

"We didn't expect to lose every game like that," he said. "Everyone is hungry. We don't want to go down the same path again."

Roundtree has plenty of help at end in fellow sophomores Isaiah Gay and Owen Carney Jr. Gay played in all 12 games as a freshmen, then sat out spring ball because of a suspension. He is back in the team's good graces and expected to start today against Kent State.

"I'm ready to hit somebody else, other than my teammates," Gay said.

Roundtree, Gay and the rest of the sophomores know what comes next. Last year, they got a taste. Often very sour.

"I've got a lot more tools," Gay said.

Roundtree and Gay work well together.

"He pushes me and I push him," Gay said. "Every day. In practices. In the classroom. We compete in everything we do."

The 6-foot-5 Roundtree is listed at 255 pounds and the 6-3 Gay is at 225, up 10 pounds each from their rookie weights. As they continue to grow, and learn, Gay thinks the duo can rank among the best in the Big Ten.

"I want me and Bobby to be two dominant ends," Gay said, "controlling the pass game as much as the run game."

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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