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Oluwole Betiku Jr. during football Pro Timing Day at the Irwin Indoor Facility on UI campus in Champaign on Monday, March 6, 2020.

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CHAMPAIGN — If Lovie Smith is upset with Oluwole Betiku for leaving Illinois early, he has an unusual way of showing it.

Betiku flew into town Friday to get ready for Monday’s Illinois Pro Timing Day. At the airport, Betiku saw Smith, who was picking up his grandson.

“He gave me a ride to my place,” Betiku said. “We had a good conversation. He was great. He’s like a father to me.”

The defensive end transferred to Illinois from Southern Cal before the start of the 2019 season. After limited playing time with the Trojans, he was an immediate hit with the Illini. Despite missing three games because of injury, Betiku led the team with nine sacks.

Betiku could have come back to Illinois for another year. But on Jan. 11, the 22-year-old declared for the NFL draft.

“After the season, I looked at my numbers, I looked at how I played, and I just felt like I’m ready for the challenge,” Betiku said.

Betiku didn’t seek much advice before making the jump.

“I really just focused my soul and sat by myself in the house and asked myself, ‘I’ve already graduated, I’ve got a college degree. What am I waiting for?’” Betiku said. “I might as go try to be a professional player.”

What happens next is up to him.

“At the end of the day, wherever you go, however you go, you have to make a team, you have to work hard,” Betiku said. “I believe in my hard work and my effort. I’ve always bet on my effort and myself.”

Satisfying stay

Betiku enjoyed his time in Champaign-Urbana. However brief.

“To me, it was the best decision I ever made,” Betiku said. “It was a scary decision. Going into the (transfer) portal after an injury and not having film, a lot of people told me it was the wrong idea. A lot of coaches passed up on me. I’m very grateful for Coach Lovie, Coach (Austin) Clark. They gave me an opportunity to come here and they believed I could play.

“The first question Coach Lovie asked me when I came, ‘You still remember how to play football?’”

The answer was “Yes.”

"This is always going to be home for me,” Betiku said.

Pro Timing Day gave him a reason to return.

“It was great,” Betiku said. “It feels good to be back.”

He made sure to stop at a few of his favorite local restaurants, including Black Dog. And Betiku visited former teammates.

“It just feels good to see my friends again, my guys,” Betiku said. “It wasn’t that cold, so it was great.”

Originally from Nigeria, Betiku moved to the U.S. as a high school sophomore.

“I never thought I would go this far with sports,” Betiku said. “I never thought I would be in Illinois or play college football. I was like, ‘Man, I just want to come to the States.’ It’s a blessing. Every day, I wake up and pinch myself. I’m really living a movie life.”

Job interview

On Monday, Betiku sprinted, ran drills and lifted weights in front of 30 NFL scouts at the Irwin Indoor Practice Facility.

“This is what I’ve been doing every day,” Betiku said. “I didn’t really ask about the numbers. I just did the best I could.”

Betiku has buddies in the NFL, who have given him pointers. Namely, be ready for camp and be yourself.

“When you get to camp, everybody’s in the same boat,” Betiku said. “Give effort, show up on film every time and run to the ball. Control what you can. Work hard every day. I listen to whatever they say.”

He sought input from different levels of NFL prospects. From top draftees to free agents.

“It’s cool getting good insight from them, learning how to be a pro,” Betiku said.

Immediately after declaring for the draft, Betiku moved to the Dallas area and began training.

This week, Betiku is cutting back on his weight training. Giving his muscles a break. Trying some yoga and relaxation. Soon, Betiku will be back at it, working on position drills.

In late April, Betiku will find out what the NFL thinks of him. If he isn’t drafted, it is likely he will sign as a free agent.

“I try not to think about it, but I still dream about it every day,” Betiku said.

A five-star prospect in high school, Betiku dealt with doubters after a slow start at Southern Cal.

“Regardless of what they say, they can’t measure my heart,” Betiku said. “That’s all that matters to me.

“I got to USC, they called me a bust. Growing up in my career, I’ve learned not to pay attention to the noise. I focus on my hard work and have great days every day.”

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

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).