College Football Reporter/Columnist

Bob Asmussen is a college football reporter and columnist for The News-Gazette. His email is asmussen@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).

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When he took over as Illinois offensive coordinator in 2018, Rod Smith learned quickly that “you better know where No. 97 was lining up in practice.” And Smith had to make sure his quarterbacks, running backs and linemen were aware of it, too.

“You definitely felt his presence,” Smith said. “You felt him wherever he was at. He could disrupt a practice. He could disrupt a game. He was just tremendous football player.”

On Monday, former Illini assistant Smith talked glowingly about Bobby Roundtree — the aforementioned No. 97 — who passed away Friday at the way-too-young age of 23.

His death inspired the Twitter hashtag “#97Strong,” as well as an outpouring of support.

“He was a great person,” Smith said. “Every player, every coach loved his company, loved his presence, loved his energy. He was just an overall feel-good person to be around.

“He was first-class. He’s the type of kid that you want your son to grow up to be like.”

On the field, Roundtree was a terror. Because of his size, athleticism and number, Roundtree often was compared to Illini Hall of Famer Simeon Rice.

“Very similar,” Smith said. “I can definitely see that.”

Roundtree helped the Illinois offense.

“When you go up against a player the caliber of Bobby Roundtree, and you do that day in and day out, you’re going to make any player better,” Smith said. “You’ve got to step up your game in order to match his intensity.”

The players on offense didn’t want to be on the wrong side of their coordinator.

“You don’t want the head coach mad at you either,” Smith said.

To Smith, there was little doubt Roundtree would play at the next level.

“He was on the trajectory, the right path,” Smith said. “Obviously, every player has things they need to work on. But Bobby was on the way of fulfilling that dream.”

Tragic time

On May 18, 2019, Roundtree suffered a severe spinal injury in a swimming accident near his Florida home.

Rod Smith was with Lovie Smith and the rest of the Illini coaches on a recruiting trip in Georgia.

He remembers the call.

“Our whole staff was in the Atlanta airport,” Smith said. “It was awful. It was definitely a gut punch from a morale and mentality standpoint. You never want one of your players to have to go through what he had to go through.”

Roundtree’s injury hit Lovie Smith hard.

“Coach is a strong individual. He doesn’t show a lot of emotion. You could tell that one affected not just him, but everybody,” Smith said.

After the accident, the Illinois players rallied around their injured teammate.

No question in Rod Smith’s mind, Roundtree inspired the team during the 2019 season, when the Illini ended a five-year bowl drought.

“It was a driving force for our kids, particularly whenever they had the chance to talk to him and see him,” Smith said. “It was all very motivational, very moving. It seemed like it moved the soul of our team.

“Bobby wasn’t just a really good player. We all knew that. But he actually was one of our team leaders.”

The Illinois players were determined to keep Roundtree in the front of their minds. They talked with him as often as possible.

“One, that’s a credit to Bobby, the impact he had on guys, the relationship he had with them,” Smith said. “And two, it’s a credit to our players. Bobby was still a part of that team. Even though he wasn’t there physically, he was there with them in spirit the entire season.”

Smith was impressed with Roundtree’s relentless rehab work after the accident.

“He attacked it,” Smith said. “I think he understood the road that was ahead of him, and he took it as a challenge to beat it.

“He was always upbeat. He was always telling me, ‘Coach, I’m going to walk again.’ That was always refreshing to hear because you knew he had the right mindset.”

Though he is no longer connected to the Illinois program, Rod Smith hopes the team honors Roundtree.

Smith likes my idea to have a top player wear No. 97 each year and keep ROUNDTREE on the name plate.

“That would definitely be interesting,” Smith said.

Unexpected down time

When Lovie Smith was fired late in the 2020 season, Rod Smith took over as head coach for the Penn State game. It was a one-game gig. Rod Smith wasn’t retained by new coach Bret Bielema.

Smith signed a three-year contract extension before the 2020 season that was scheduled to top out at $850,000 in 2022.

Smith and his family have left the C-U area and are back living near his dad, Gary, in West Virginia.

Smith wants to coach again.

“I’m still trying to look and see what’s out there,” he said. “There’s not a whole lot out there right now. Trying to play it by ear.”

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-393-8248 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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