Dele Harding

Illinois linebacker Dele Harding (9) celebrates his interception of a Minnesota pass for a touchdown with Jake Hansen (35) in the first quarter at an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)Illinois linebacker Dele Harding (9) celebrates his interception of a Minnesota pass for a touchdown with Jake Hansen (35) in the first quarter at an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn)

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The Big Ten’s leading tackler is coming off a monster game against Rutgers. Illinois linebacker Dele Harding had a pick six (his second of the season), a forced fumble, 12 tackles and two tackles for loss. He is currently fourth in the nation with 106 tackles. Not bad for a guy who entered season with 82 career stops. Beat writer BOB ASMUSSEN sat down with the Elkton, Md., native earlier this week to talk about his days as a high school tight end, Lou Hernandez’s influence, being the strong, silent type and much more:

What did you think when you intercepted the pass against Rutgers?

When the ball touches your hand, it just feels like your body takes over from that point. The end zone was what I was focused on.

Did any part of you think, “Don’t drop it?”

I try not to think negative at all. I do good with my head. I don’t want to jinx anything.

How soon did you think, “I’m going to score?”

Immediately. The defense did a good job blocking and made it all clear for me.I watched you gently drop the ball to the ground after you hit the end zone.

Did you think about spiking it or doing an end zone celebration?

Nah. It was the same as the one from Minnesota as far as celebration.That was your second pick six of the year.

What’s going on with that?

I can’t credit it enough to the defense. It’s nothing I do singlehandedly. It was definitely the defense, whether it was pressure up front or coverage in the back end. Then after I got the interception, guys did a tremendous job blocking and making it clear for me to run into the end zone.

Should Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith design an offensive package just for you?

Man, I’ve been waiting. That would be awesome. I like working with my hands a lot. I stay on my game. I think everything translates with football.

What position on offense did you play in high school?

Tight end. I was a big fan of offense. I can’t lie, it was mostly blocking. No touchdowns in high school.

How much fun are you having right now?

The most fun. The chance of me being out there is just a blessing. Not a lot of people make it to this point, from high school to collegiate football. Any time you’re out there, it’s all about having fun. It’s the same game we’ve been playing since little league.

As a senior, were there doubts if you were ever going to get to a bowl game?

No. Every year, for me, the whole thing is positive thoughts, positive feedback. Not making it is never in my mind. We just work our butts off throughout the season. Wherever the chips fall, they fall.

What would a bowl game signal to you?

How hard everybody has been working, it paid off.Do you have a destination in mind?My main focus is Michigan State. It’s one game at a time.

What has been the key to the turnaround?

Coach Lou (Hernandez) coming in and changing the mentality and foundation of the team. Guys have been tougher ever since then. It’s clear as day.

When did you know this year was going to be better than previous ones in your time at Illinois?

I can relate it back to winter workouts. It was a higher standard. Mediocrity was not a thing. It didn’t exist anymore. Everybody was on each other in workouts when it was really, really hard. And the extra work everybody was putting in. In the previous years, it wasn’t like that. Seven-on-sevens were competitive. People were almost getting into fights. That’s a negative thing. But at least you know the team is competing at all times.

How well are the linebackers playing this year?

Better than what they have done in the past. Our expectation was higher before the season. It’s definitely a brotherhood. That was a goal, to be one of the best linebacker corps in the country.

What has first-year linebacker coach Miles Smith meant to the group?

He’s been tremendous, Especially with relating to us. That’s a big thing. With him being on the youth side of coaching as far as age goes, he connects with us. He’s very understandable. A funny guy. Cool to be around in the meetings. Every day, we look forward to it.

Who do you like better: Lovie Smith the head coach or Lovie Smith the defensive coordinator?

They kind of go hand in hand with each other. He’s a real personable guy. You can talk to him about anything and everything. In the public eye, he seems straight forward. It’s different behind closed doors.Your three interceptions lead the team.

Have you always had good hands?

Yes. Basketball helps. I played catch a lot with my father. Prior to actually putting the pads on, I was outside playing football.

Why are you No. 9?

I wasn’t always 9. I started out as 31 in high school. I was the last to pick. During a game, my jersey had ripped. We didn’t have a spare. One of our seniors was hurt who wore 9. I was able to exchange with him. I always wanted a single digit.

Who is one person, living or dead, you would most like to meet?

LeBron James. He is a leader on and off the court. I like what he does with his community as well. The school that he built was tremendous.

What do you want to do after football?

I want to help people, especially the youth.

Tell me something people don’t know about you.

To the public, I guess I can seem like I’m a real talkative person. Honestly, I don’t talk a lot. Me and my dad (David) can drive hours and he would do most of the talking. He’ll tell you that. Even today, I could call him on the phone. It would be an hour conversation and I’d say probably 20 words.

Tell me something people don’t know about one of your teammates.

Jamal Woods thinks he’s multi-talented. He does music, dancing, he’s a DJ, everything. I think he is pretty solid. The singing part, I don’t know about. Don’t tell him that.You have twice been voted a captain.

What does that mean?

It’s an honor. Guys want you to lead the team and look up toward you. I can’t ask for anything more.

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).

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).