CHAMPAIGN — Oluwole Betiku Jr. didn’t know until Sunday he is the nation’s leader in quarterback sacks with five.
Or that Charlotte’s Alex Highsmith is just behind the Illinois defensive end with four.
Actually, the NCAA measures sacks by average per game. So, Betiku’s 2 1 / 2 is better than Highsmith and Iowa State’s O’Rien Vance at two per game. Two other Big Ten players are close. Maryland’s Keandre Jones and Michigan State’s Kenny Willekes average 1 3 / 4 each.
Betiku isn’t thinking about personal glory. The team is the thing.
“It just feels good to be 2-0,” Betiku said.
“The only stats I really care about are the defensive stats. What number are we as a defense? We’re trying to get it to top 10.”
His coaches will like this: He wants to do more.
“I can definitely play better the next game and the next games to come,” Betiku said.
Why has he become the sackmaster?
Start with opportunity. Against UConn, Betiku played 56 snaps.
At Southern Cal, where he began his college career before transferring to Illinois this offseason?
“The most I played in a game was like eight (snaps),” Betiku said. “There were seven games I played one snap.”
Flipping the switch
Off the field, Betiku is mild-mannered. A football version of “Bruce Banner.”
“Before games, I just watch everybody,” Betiku said. “I’m kind of like there, but I’m not there. I’m zoned in and out of the place I’m at. I’m playing my game in my head, anticipating what’s going to happen. Feeling my fingers and moving my toes so I stay in the moment.
“Before games, I like to be as relaxed as I can be.”
But on the field, he changes. Time to Hulk out.
“It’s Coach (Austin) Clark, man,” Betiku said. “He just turned it on during pregame warmups.
“Once you step on the field, you have no choice. You have to wake up.”
The opponents have different stages, too. For Betiku, he sees it in the offensive linemen.
“The first quarter, the offensive linemen they like to be all extra,” Betiku said. “They can’t last four quarters. By the time they get to the second quarter, they all chill out with their extra stuff.”
His happy place
After three years and limited play at Southern Cal, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Betiku found a second home at Illinois. He is more relaxed at his new school.
“Definitely,” Betiku said. “Just the comfort of being in Illinois and being in Champaign and being part of a family, part of a football team that’s great.
“The guys on the team, everybody is like brothers. We all hang out together. We all talk. I feel like I’m more relaxed than I’ve ever been playing.”
When he first considered transferring to Illinois, he wasn’t sure if it would be a fit. A lesser pace than what he was used to.
“I like it,” he said. “I just stay home, relax, chill, no traffic. I just feel like everything is more slower, and I like that slower life.”
He has changed from his time at Southern Cal. In a good way.
“I used to try to control everything before,” Betiku said. “Now, I just control my effort and give the best effort I can give every day.”
This year’s training camp was the best of his career. But it didn’t start well.
“My first week of camp, I was watching my film and like, ‘Man, who is this guy on tape?’ Everything looked out of place,” Betiku said. “My coach told me to be patient and trust the process and just keep working. I did that every day. It has all paid off.”
The phone calls to home are better than ever.
“My dad just believes in me,” Betiku said. “He always tells me every time I should just keep going, that it’s going to happen. I should just be patient. My mom says the same thing, too. They support me in every (way) of my life.”
His dad provides Betiku with reminders.
“‘Don’t ever forget who you are,’” he said.
Originally from Nigeria, the 22-year-old Betiku has been in the U.S. for six years.
“I’ve grown a lot,” Betiku said. “As a man. As a football player. As a person. It’s a blessing. I don’t even know where to start. I didn’t even know what Illinois was, USC or football or Champaign.”
Illinois coach Lovie Smith likes that Betiku got better from the opener to UConn.
“He’ll talk about some of the other plays he still left out there,” Smith said. “We played him a little bit more than what was planned right away because he got into a pretty good rhythm.
“It turned into more of a passing game, and he took advantage of that.”
Betiku is performing the way Smith thought he would.
“If you just look at his athletic ability, you assume he can rush the passer, too,” Smith said. “I’m anxious to see him take another step this week. The sky’s the limit.”
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.