Q&A: Former Illinois football player J Leman


The Daily Illini File Photo

Linebacker J Leman (47) enters the field for Illini’s game against Indiana University on October 7, 2006.

By Tatiania Perry

Editors Note: Three members of Illini Drive — a sports talk show on WPGU 107.1 FM — spoke with former Illinois linebacker and current Big Ten Network analyst Jeremy Leman.

Leman was a First-Team All-American in 2007, and a two-time All-Big Ten player as voted on by the media. During his senior season, the Champaign native led the Illini to their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1984.

Orri Benatar (OB): What Big Ten teams do you recommend Illini fans look out for this weekend?

J: I think the Penn State-Iowa matchup is intriguing. Kinnick Stadium is a tough place to play – they’ve beat three top-five teams in the last nine or 10 seasons, including Michigan last year at Kinnick Stadium. I would say it’s easier to play (there) in September than November because they get better as the season progresses.

Will Gerard (WG): After last week’s loss should Illinois fans be concerned? Where do you think this team is headed?

J: Well here’s the deal: Illinois is a long way away from what all Illinois fans want, which is a Big Ten championship; a National Championship. I think everyone realizes and knows that they’re a work in progress. They’re starting 10 true freshmen. There’s obvious stuff. You’ve got to be better with the penalties, you’ve got to be better on the offensive line, you’ve got to be better in man-to-man coverage. But they’re really young and they have some young promising players. You’ve got to get the quarterback situation figured out and there’s a lot to be worried about, but there’s also a lot to build upon.

WG: During your time at Illinois, you were recruited by Ron Turner before Ron Zook took over as coach. Do you see any similarities now with Lovie Smith’s replacement of Tim Beckman?

J: Absolutely. I think 2005 was the worst season Illinois ever had, which was my sophomore year and the first under Zook. There were a lot of freshmen and sophomores playing way too early. We should not have been playing. Now, it paid off in 2007 when we were much more experienced than a lot of the teams we faced. You have got to hope there are similar results. When you’re inexperienced, especially at the offensive and defensive line, where there are two freshmen starters with each unit, there’s going to be a learning curve. It’s going to take time, but they’re going to get there.

Jake Hasan (JH): What do you think about the performance of young guys like Isaiah Gay and Mike Epstein? Along with many other young guys, what do you think their futures look like?

J: I think the future is bright. Epstein is good at everything, not great at one thing. He reminds me a lot of Pierre Thomas. He can run the ball, catch the ball, protect, play special teams. He makes a play or two; a guy where you can’t help but think, ‘Man that kid is a playmaker.’ I think Larry Boyd and Alex Palczewski are really good players. They just have a learning curve. I think Isaiah Gay has some juice to him; he just needs to get bigger, and so does Bobby Roundtree. Bennett Williams would tell you he can play better than he did Friday night, but he’s going to be a good player. I think Tony Adams and Nate Hobbs are long corners. They have good size. There are players all over the field. They’ve got a ways to go, but they’re going to be alright.

OB: In your estimation, what’s a realistic amount of time until Illinois starts competing for Big Ten division and conference titles?

J: I would say it depends. I think realistically by year four. It’s a little bit skewed; I count this as year one for Lovie. When these freshmen are seniors you’re going to be competing and when even more players get experience, you should expect to win for sure.

WG: As a Champaign native myself, one question I have to ask is how special was it to wear the orange and blue for your hometown team?

J: Oh man, it was a dream come true right there. I actually didn’t have any other options in Division I football to play anywhere, so the chance Ron Turner gave me was special. He gave me a chance and I’ll never forget that because he believed in me when other people didn’t. I wouldn’t be talking to you guys today if it wasn’t for Ron Turner, so I’m indebted to him.

WG: Did you ever foresee yourself becoming an announcer? I know back when you were younger, you considered appearing in TV infomercials. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?

J: I didn’t have cable growing up, so I just watched the public access channels, which had infomercials on all the time. I thought that was a lot of fun and that I could pitch products for sure. I also announced with my brother on a radio station we made up when I was 10 or 11 years old. I was always into getting on camera, either announcing games, doing infomercials, and it just so happened that things started to open up at Big Ten Network around my last year of college. I was able to get some experience early and take some lumps while polishing my craft. It’s been great.

JH: What’s one of your favorite games that you’ve called? What now sticks out to you as a game that was a lot of fun to call?

J: As a sideline reporter one of my first years, I did a Michigan-Michigan State game. It came down to a last-second field goal, and it was a great game. Michigan actually ended up winning that game, one of the few games Brady Hoke won against Michigan State. What was interesting about that is that I went to go interview Brady Hoke afterward, and I just remember I totally botched a question on live TV. I was so excited about the game. But when stuff’s live, it’s live. That’s what’s great about live TV, sometimes you see mistakes. It’s real. It’s not fake or edited. It was fun not only for the game, but the experience afterward.

OB: How is the Big House in person?

J: It’s huge, but it’s built into the ground quite a bit, so it doesn’t look that big from the outside. When you’re in the press box, you’re far away from the field, opposed to Ohio State or Penn State where it curves straight up. Those stadiums are actually louder than the Big House.

WG: As an announcer, how are game days different from what they were as a player?

J: You prepare in a similar fashion, but I don’t have to hit anybody and that’s a great feeling. At one point, I enjoyed that in my life to a measurable degree. Now, I don’t really want to hit anyone anymore. I had enough hitting after 17 years of organized football. Five of major college football and four in the NFL. I’ve hit enough people and I’m happy to talk about it, rather than tackle.

WG: Do you feel like your body took some lumps after all that hitting?

J: Of course you take some lumps, but I don’t walk around with any pain. I’m healthy. My health is great, thank goodness. I’m thankful to play as long as I did and not experience near the injuries some of my teammates had, unfortunately. It’s a difficult part of the game, but I’m very fortunate that I was able to stay healthy.

OB: Penn State is sort of in the driver’s seat after Ohio State lost to Oklahoma. Do you think Penn State can win out and take themselves to the CFB unlike last year?

J: Well, unlike most people, I never thought Ohio State was going to be the favorite anyway. They lost three first-round picks in their secondary, they haven’t been able to throw the ball deep since 2014. They’re a good team. But All-Big Ten team? I don’t know about that. Penn State has the No. 1 running back and tight end in the country. If you were going to argue with me on that point, I’d say these guys are getting drafted first at their respective positions. They’ve got dynamic wide receivers on the outside. They’ve also got a defense getting better and better. They finally have the full depth they did not have at Penn State because of some of the infractions they had with the incident a couple years back. So, I still think Penn State is the team to beat. It’s always been that way. Ohio State might have more depth, but the first stringers at Penn State are better than the first stringers on Ohio State.

OB: One last question. Do you think any Big Ten teams can compete with the likes of Clemson, Oklahoma, Alabama or even USC, who are the big favorites to win it all?

J: Can they compete? Yeah. One team I think everyone needs to talk about is Oklahoma State. They’re my National Championship pick. I’ve been picking them for about three weeks now. Why is that? Just look at what they did in the first half against Pitt. Four hundred and twenty-four yards passing and five TDs from Mason Rudolph, that’s your Heisman trophy winner right there. In the first half, and I’ve never seen this, four wide receivers had 100 yards. Talk about an equal opportunity receiving core. My goodness, they’re putting up some sick numbers in Stillwater! I’ll tell you this: The national championship and the Heisman trophy go through Bedlam. It’s either going to be Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma or Mason Rudolph and Oklahoma State. One of those two teams is in the playoff. I think it’s Rudolph and the Pokes. Watch out!

Illini Drive airs 6-7 p.m. Monday-Thursday.