Perry bets on NFL future with return to Bielema


Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Roderick Perry tackles the opposing ball carrier during the game against Iowa on Dec. 5. Perry is signing with the Cleveland Browns as undrafted free agent.

By Carson Gourdie, Assistant Sports Editor

Roderick Perry didn’t take the conventional route for furthering an NFL career. Perry, a native of Raleigh, North Carolina, went across state lines and attended South Carolina State, an FCS school.

After being redshirted his freshman season, Perry grew and excelled at the lower-division school, capping off his junior year with 4.5 sacks.

But Perry was seeking more. After speaking with Lovie Smith, he made the move. Transferring to the FBS level was another step toward his ultimate goal: playing football on Sundays. 

But COVID-19 threw a wrench into the 2020 season. Combine that with the fact the coach who had picked him was fired and getting injured during the season, Perry’s future was muddled. 

But after evaluating his situation, Perry decided another year of college was the best option for his professional dreams. And being welcomed sure helped Bielema’s case for him to return. 

“They saw the tape,” Perry said. “They like how I play, and they really wanted me back.”

Perry’s return is another example of Bielema’s ability to convince seniors to return and take advantage of the unprecedented circumstance. His return, more importantly, strengthens Illinois’ play in the trenches. 

While Illinois returns four players from the defensive front, circumstances are different under a Bielema influenced defense, and players will have to be able to adapt quickly in order to improve a battered defense.

“It was a weird season,” Perry said of 2020. “Now we’ve already been through that. We’ve gelled more. I’m not such the new guy anymore. We will be better with communication on the field I think. And we will be in a different front. I think guys will like that a little bit.”

The past five years of Smith resulted in mediocre defense play, with Smith electing to run a 4-3 defense that relied heavily on turnovers. Bielema and defensive coordinator Ryan Walters have decided to play with a more open mind, crafting a defense around personnel and not ideology. 

Perry’s impact was immediate and well known during Smith’s last season. The preseason FCS-All American only played in six games, but Perry’s two sacks and 17 tackles were enough to earn him an honorable mention from Big Ten coaches and media. 

Before 2020 occurred, Perry probably thought his stay in Champaign would be a one-year abbreviation. When given the opportunity to play college ball for the sixth season, Perry had no interest in transferring to a blue-blood. Transferring to another school would’ve meant a new medical staff, which could’ve cleared him from injury earlier than liked.

It was Illinois or the NFL, and the latter probably would’ve been the choice if Perry didn’t injure himself.

Perry could’ve still made the jump if he really wanted to and find success in the draft or free agency. College football analyst Phil Steele rated him the highest draft-eligible defensive tackle in the Big Ten. 

But a shortened season and an injury could’ve dropped his stock in the eyes of NFL executives. A return to campus, however, was an endorsement of himself and an investment of his future. 

“Coming back proves I am good after my injury,” Perry said. “It will only help my draft stock. Going into the draft after injury, you won’t get taken in the round you would have if you were healthy.”

But while Perry is focused on an NFL career, the defensive linemen did admit being able to in a normal 2021 college football was enticing. Coming from a small FCS school, he never experienced sold-out Big Ten crowds or the chase for bowl games.

“(You could say) COVID was a little bit of a blessing since I could get one more year,” Perry said. “All the fans, the walk to the stadium, tailgating, I want to try experiencing that again.”

Nobody knows for sure if 2021 will have a return to normalcy by college football season. But regardless of Perry’s ability to play in front of fans, he will do one thing for sure: play in front of scouts. And giving Bielema the chance to coach him increases his chances of securing his dream.



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