Tough defenses go back to back

Photo courtesy of University of Southern California Sports Information

Photo courtesy of University of Southern California Sports Information

By Jason Grodsky

Coming off a junior season that saw him leap onto the national stage by leading the Big Ten and finishing third nationally in tackles, the Champaign native once again put together a solid campaign at middle linebacker for the Illini this year.

Leman led the Illini in tackles for a second straight season and finished the season ranked third in the Big Ten and 21st nationally with 10.36 tackles per game.

Not many downs were bigger for the Illini defense this season than Leman’s impact plays against Penn State in Illinois’ second Big Ten game of the year.

With Illinois leading 24-20 in the third quarter and the Nittany Lions driving, Leman broke up a pass in the end zone and intercepted another to stop a Penn State score.

“You don’t find many guys like him in this society,” Illinois head coach Ron Zook said of his linebacker earlier this season. “What you see is what you get with J. He’s a person that has got his priorities in order. He loves to play the game and plays with a lot of excitement. He studies the game and plays hard.”

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    Leman’s play on the field has been a reflection of his hard work off of it.

    His academic success paid off this week when he was honored in New York on Tuesday with one of the National Football Foundation 2007 Scholar-Athlete Awards.

    “You always hear you’re a student first and an athlete second, and to tell you the truth I don’t know if I’ve always seen it that way,” Leman said in an interview last season. “Sometimes football came before school for me, but overall school’s been very important to me. I take great pride in what I’ve been able to do in the classroom.”

    USC defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis is part of the Trojans’ powerful defensive front.

    The Chino, Calif., native has anchored the Trojan defense all season, stuffing the run and pressuring quarterbacks into making mistakes.

    This season Ellis finished fourth on the Trojans in tackles with 56 and second on the team in tackles for loss and sacks with 12.5 and 8.5, respectively. In total, the senior accounted for a team-high 75 yards lost by opponents.

    “He’s an unbelievable football player,” said former USC center Ryan Kalil to “He made me so much better because I had to block him every day … He’s so strong, so man-strong. He’s just a good player.”

    His efforts on the field this season earned him the 2007 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and a First Team All-Pac-10 selection along with seven of his teammates. Ellis is USC’s fifth Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year, joining linebackers Duane Bickett (1984), Junior Seau (1989) and Chris Claiborne (1998) and defensive tackle Shaun Cody (2004).

    Ellis’ play has also earned him high praises from not only his own coach, but from fellow coaches around the Pac-10.

    “Sedrick Ellis might be the No. 1 pick in the country coming out,” Arizona State head coach Dennis Erickson said in a press release prior to his team’s game with USC on Thanksgiving. “You look at them defensively, and they’re as good as they’re ranked. Their stats show how good they are and they’ve got a lot of good players to do it. They play well together.”

    Ellis was on the preseason Lombardi Award and Lott Trophy watch list and was recently named to the 2007 American Football Coaches Association All-American first team.