Miami native Owen Carney Jr. has been an important figure for an oft-struggling Illini defense over the last few years. Now in his fifth year at Illinois, the converted outside
linebacker is striving for consistent playmaking as he makes his case in front of NFL scouts. News-Gazette contributor Gavin Good caught up with Carney about his
decision to return for one more season at Illinois, making Champaign feel like home and his ambitions to work in sports one day after his football career ends.
It all came about pretty last-minute and you’re a fifth-year senior, but are you exploring any possibilities with your name, image and likeness?
It definitely swept the scene. I don’t have any deals going on right now, really. Like you said, it’s my fifth year, so it’s really more so for the guys in the classes after me that are going to reap the benefits of it, because it’s fairly new to the world and to the businesses. I’m just happy it finally passed, and we got a shot to make some extra money.
What was it like growing up in Miami?It’s like a football heaven down there. We take football very seriously from age five and up. We all breathe, eat and sleep football, and we have a lot of products that come out of Broward County and the Miami-Dade County area. It’s great to be around great players, and the history of Florida football is amazing.
The weather is starting to turn toward autumn now. Do you miss the weather down there or do you prefer the weather up here in Champaign?
I definitely miss it. Especially later in the fall season, I miss it a lot. But over the four years, five years, I became able to tolerate it a little bit. It doesn’t bother me as much as when I first got up here as a freshman with that big culture shock, but now I can tolerate it. I know what to expect. I know how to prepare myself mentally and physically, get through it and dominate practices, then let that feed into games.
What has been the biggest adjustment of your switch from defensive end to outside linebacker in this new defense?Probably the biggest thing is just standing up more on two feet, rather than being in the three-point stance. That’s the biggest thing. That’s what stands out the most. The majority of techniques are still the same, footwork is still the same and definitely the aggression and the passion is definitely the same.
What is the biggest thing for you in being a consistent difference-maker for this defense?Really, just every day, getting better. Adversity comes, you just roll with it. Every day, you take something away from each day and take it day-by-day, week-by-week and you look up and you’ll be where you need to be and where you expect it to be.
What’s the best moment of your football career?
Statistically, the Purdue game in 2020, my best career game when I had three sacks. That’s what kind of put me on the map. A lot of people like to take away pros from that game, but I took it with a lot of cons. I left two more sacks out there. Who knew what would’ve been said about me if I’d have had those extra two?
What was the worst or most challenging moment of your football career?Probably coming in as a freshman, and just having to not be the man, having to take a backseat, having to take a year to gather and get better and prepare myself for a real, D-I, Big Ten-level performance.
You mentioned being established in Champaign, and it feeling like home for you now. Who makes that environment comfortable for you? What’s your support system here?
That’s solely all my teammates and the relationships that I’ve built over the last five years. I know we had some coaching changes while I’ve been here, but the coaches that were here for majority of my time, building relationships with them, and then the guys that I came in with. It’s been a brotherhood, and I have a lot of camaraderie hanging out with them. That makes it feel like home enough to make me call this place home.
I wanted to ask you about your time in the transfer portal last winter. What made you want to come back to Illinois?My time in the portal was fairly short. I believe about two weeks. And the reason why I came back to Illinois, I was recruited heavily. I stayed on the phone with (assistant) coach (Cory) Patterson and Coach (Bret Bielema) almost every day or every other day. They stayed in contact with me, and they just preached to me how much this is a great place and my roots are here. And I’m well-known here, and especially Coach B, him being a trenches type of guy, how he can help develop me and things that he sees in my game that made me better and get me prepared for the next level. That ultimately made me come back.
Which other schools were interested in you when you were in the portal?
I had interest from Penn State, Florida State, Wake Forest, North Carolina, Texas before the coaching change and Purdue.
Where is your favorite place to eat in town?
That’s probably between Meatheads and Cactus Grill.
You’re working on your second degree now. What was it like getting your degree in communications, and now being in the recreation, sport and tourism master’s program?
Communications, it was amazing. I kind of just fell into that major with my first two comms classes, and then I finally declared. The topics of the classes, it being broad topics, earning that degree was great for me, because it’s something I could relate to and have an interest in. Now, I’m trying to get my master’s with a focus in sports management, which is great because I’m learning the ins and outs, not just on the field or the court. I’m learning the outside stuff, and being mentally prepared for that.
When your football career comes to an end, do you want to use that degree to work in sports?I would definitely love to work in sports, in any facet, whether that’s coaching, broadcast, some type of analyst. I would love to (do that).
Now that pandemic restrictions have loosened, what’s your family’s presence like at games?
For 2021, they definitely opened it back up for fans to come back. So far, my parents have been to two out of my four games. They came to the home opener, and just came to this recent game against Maryland. They do their fair share of hopping on a plane and coming out here to see me. I appreciate them for that, for supporting me. The least I can do is put on a good performance for them. I think they have plans to come to one or two more games. They always try to make it to at least two games a year.
Who is your funniest teammate, and why?Funniest teammate, that would probably be Danny Barker. He just wakes up with it. No matter how early it is, how late it is, he’ll say a joke and make you crack a smile.
What’s something about yourself that people would never guess?I do not eat seafood.