CHAMPAIGN — In the college football democracy, I am a heavily-involved voter.
Every week, there is an Associated Press Top 25 ballot to fill out. Annually, I cast votes for the Heisman, Davey O’Brien, Doak Walker, Lou Groza and Biletnikoff awards.
It’s a privilege to serve. I have never said no when asked to help out.
During the last five seasons, I have rarely had to consider an Illinois player for any of the honors. Until now.
On Sunday, my Biletnikoff semifinalist picks are due. Named for the former Oakland Raiders star with the Stickum-coated hands, it goes to the nation’s top receiver.
As awards go, it is fairly easy to separate the contenders. The numbers don’t lie. If you catch a lot of passes and score a bunch of touchdowns, you will be a strong candidate.
Compare that to the Outland, Rimington and Lombardi awards, which are decided more by reputations and less by numbers.
Back to my quandary: What to do with Illinois junior receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe?
The transfer from Southern Cal leads the team with 29 catches for 598 yards and nine touchdowns.
He needs one more touchdown to tie the Illini single-season record held by David Williams (1985) and Brandon Lloyd (2001). Three games left to break the record. Bowl stats count.
“I’m going to keep on working and hopefully, I can do it,” Imatorbhebhe said. “I’m just worried about winning.”
Imatorbhebhe is tied for 11th nationally in touchdown receptions. His per-catch average of 20.6 yards is 12th. He is 81st in receiving yards.
Impressive stuff. Certainly good enough to be part of Biletnkoff conversation.
Imatorbhebhe wasn’t on the Biletnikoff ballot, which includes 71 receivers. But there is a way to write-in a player for any of the 10 semifinal spots.
When picking award winners, the player’s importance to his team needs to be part of the equation.
So, where would Illinois football be without Imatorbhebhe?
Not bowl eligible. His fourth-down, fourth-quarter grab against Michigan State saved the day and set up Daniel Barker’s winning touchdown catch.
Maybe somebody else on the team could have made the play. But Imatorbhebhe did make the play.
Given the circumstance, it was the biggest catch of his career. So far.
“I feel like it was pretty significant,” Imatorbhebhe said.
He set up the comeback from 25 points down with an end-of-half touchdown catch and an 83-yard grab-and-dash on the first play of the fourth quarter last at East Lansing.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound native of Suwanee, Ga., was pulling away from the defense. Super speedy.
“I don’t feel like I’ve really been able to really show that as much this year,” he said. “But that’s definitely an element of my game I was able to show to you guys on Saturday.”
Imatorbhebhe has also shown a penchant for making plays at clutch moments. Like his 29-yard touchdown catch in the final minutes against No. 6 Wisconsin, which set up James McCourt’s game-winning field goal during the eventual 24-23 upset on Oct. 19.
Having a blast
On Tuesday, with an open week ahead, Imatorbhebhe was still feeling good about the team’s four-game win streak.
“I’m happy and a lot of people on the team are happy,” Imatorbhebhe said. “It’s a feeling that just continues on. Now that we have a bye week, the mood around here is a lot lighter. We did something big on Saturday and we’re still kind of enjoying that right now.”
After playing in only one game for the Trojans in 2018, Imatorbhebhe is now a critical part of a bowl-bound team. Heading to Champaign is working out well.
“Especially with winning,” Imatorbhebhe said. “It makes me feel like this was a great decision.”
I asked Imatorbhebhe, “Should I put you on my Biletnikoff ballot?’”
Remember, he is a confident guy. But he didn’t automatically say, “Yes.”
“That’s up to you,” Imatorbhebhe said. “To each is his own. I have my own ambitions and my own goals. You can do anything you want.”
The Biletnikoff is the receiver version of the Heisman. It’s important to the position.
“I feel like every receiver who wants to be great, his goal is to be a Biletnikoff Award winner,” Imatorbhebhe said. “That would be awesome.”
That’s the kind of guy who I want on my ballot. When I vote after Saturday’s games, Imatorbhebhe will be among the 10. So will Liberty’s Antonio Gandy-Golden, the nation’s leading receiver, and Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy, last year’s Biletnikoff winner.
The rest will be decided after Saturday’s games are done.
Semifinalists are scheduled to be announced Monday morning. Will Imatorbhebhe make the cut?
Don’t know. But he’s got one vote for sure.
Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at email@example.com.