CHAMPAIGN — Josh Imatorbhebhe currently isn’t giving much thought to the extra year of college eligibility at his disposal.
Nor about a future in the NFL.
Illinois football’s leading receiver isn’t even using his time to consider that he and brother Daniel Imatorbhebhe, an Illini tight end, will celebrate senior day together this weekend.
“Maybe I take it a little bit for granted to be able to play with my brother in college,” Josh Imatorbhebhe said Wednesday. “Like a third-person perspective looks like it’s a huge deal, but I guess I’ve gotten used to it.”
What Imatorbhebhe refuses to look past — and what is receiving the bulk of his attention — is the significance of Illinois’ road victories last month over Rutgers and Nebraska. As well as Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. showdown between the Illini (2-3) and No. 24 Iowa (4-2) at Memorial Stadium.
“We have two games ahead of us — well, really four is what I’m thinking,” Imatorbhebhe said, “just because we have two games, (Big Ten) championship weekend (and a possible bowl game). So much can change.”
Imatorbhebhe has seen that firsthand on the football field.
In his transfer from Southern California to Illinois after the 2018 season. And in each of his Illini campaigns, which got off to rocky starts before turnarounds happened.
Imatorbhebhe’s first six games at Illinois last season resulted in a 2-4 record that the Illini eventually transformed into a 6-6 mark and their first bowl berth since 2014.
And Illinois began his senior season with an 0-3 ledger, only to carry a two-game win streak into this Saturday’s game against Iowa after last Saturday’s home game against No. 3 Ohio State was canceled beause of COVID-19 issues among the Buckeyes.
Imatorbhebhe called the win over the Scarlet Knights the “oasis” that he and his teammates sought after their three losses to start the season.
“There’s definitely a lot better energy going around. Guys are more competitive. That’s what winning does,” Imatorbhebhe said. “Think of when a place loses — it’s like a desert. Like it’s everything is dry and it’s hot, scorching. But we start to win and it brings the rain — the rain comes and fruit grows. It’s just everything becomes more lively. Things start to come alive, and that’s what has happened here.”
Imatorbhebhe’s stat line certainly bloomed in the 41-23 triumph at Nebraska on Nov. 21, which saw the return of quarterback Brandon Peters following a three-game absence tied to a positive COVID-19 test.
Against the Cornhuskers, Imatorbhebhe led the Illini in catches with four and receiving yards with 71, also hauling in a touchdown. He paces Illinois for the season with 15 catches for 215 yards and two scores.
“We have chemistry from last year,” Imatorbhebhe said of he and Peters. Imatorbhebhe’s 33 receptions for 634 yards and nine touchdowns all were 2019 team bests. “We’ve spent a lot of time throwing and catching with each other. It’s a lot more seamless.”
The transition from a typical college football season to the pandemic-affected one of 2020, according to Imatorbhebhe, hasn’t been so straightforward.
He even admitted it “hasn’t necessarily been fun” because of all the safety-related restrictions tied to the Illini both on and off the field.
“It’s just a constant grind, constant grind, constant grind,” Imatorbhebhe said, “on our mind, on our body, on our emotion. So, yeah, definitely something that you want to get something out of. You don’t want to just grind, grind, grind, grind, grind and not really see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
That light is a chance to compete at the professional level.
Even though Imatorbhebhe’s mind is on his college results, that doesn’t mean he can’t recognize what those results will mean for his future.
“If I didn’t (think I could make it to the NFL), I wouldn’t be playing,” Imatorbhebhe said. “I don’t know why you’d go through all the stuff that we go through ... (and) just the life that we live in, not to want to make it to the next level. That’s just too great of a sacrifice to me to not want to go to the next level.”
Illini coach Lovie Smith, like Imatorbhebhe, is more concerned with what his athletes achieve versus Iowa this weekend. But, being a former NFL coach, he can take a moment to assess a player’s talent and how it might translate to the pros.
“He’s got all the physical ability in the world,” Smith said. “He can jump higher than everybody. He’s as fast as anyone. He’s got good size. He can catch the football. He’s been productive in his time he’s been here on our campus.”
Imatorbhebhe is looking forward to continuing that production against Iowa, Northwestern and whoever else winds up on Illinois’ 2020 schedule.
That’s become a more enjoyable prospect, he said, amid the emergence of an Illinois offense filled with playmaking weapons. Imatorbhebhe called teammates Mike Epstein and Chase Brown the “best running back duo ... in the Big Ten,” while lavishing praise on fellow receivers Donny Navarro and Brian Hightower.
“Then you can start having fun with it as opposed to being like, ‘Man, I’ve got to respond to this pressure,’” Imatorbhebhe said. “Like when the ball comes (now it’s), ‘Heck, yeah, I have an opportunity to make a play,’ not, ‘OK, dang, if I don’t make this we’re not going to win.’”