Illini provide confidence for Imatorbhebhe with NFL career on deck


Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Redshirt senior Josh Imatorbhebhe jumps to catch a pass during the game against UConn on Sept. 7, 2019. Imatorbhebhe is now training for the NFL draft.

By Carson Gourdie, Assistant Sports Editor

He was a talented Georgia product who had his sights set out west. A four-star recruit, Josh Imatorbhebhe signed a letter of intent to play for the University of Southern California, a place that produces NFL talent annually. But, deciding to play for the 26-time Rose Bowl-winning program doesn’t grant an automatic path to the next level. 

Kicking off his career at USC where wide receivers such as JuJu Smith-Schuster and Robert Wood played, too Imatorbhebhe entered into a winning program. But like many four and five-star recruits soon realize, programs like USC hoard talented athletes, such as himself, which can create difficult situations for players trying to break into the starting lineup. 

Being on the 2017 Rose Bowl-winning team, Imatorbhebhe struggled to find playing time under Clay Helton’s watch, and his confidence of being able to succeed in college and parlaying the success into an NFL career plummeted. 

It didn’t matter that USC had the nice weather, the nice jerseys or the nice tradition that has spanned over eight decades. Imatorbhebhe wanted out, and the middle of Illinois was the perfect destination for him to develop his craft for the NFL. But his path transferring, COVID-19 and subpar quarterback play created challenges along the way. 

“Starting at the bottom and working your way up, and that’s how confidence is built,” Imatorbhebhe said. “I feel like I’m in a spot where I have a lot of people to prove wrong.”

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While head coach Bret Bielema persuaded a long list of impactful seniors to return for another season, the former Wisconsin coach didn’t even bother to contact wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe, who appeared to be on track for the NFL. 

“I felt at peace about it,” Imatorbhebhe said about declaring for the NFL draft. “I feel like I did everything I could’ve done… (When Bielema was hired) I was already going in another direction.”

Imatorbhebhe never put up the most ridiculous stats, as he had to deal with Peters’ inconsistencies and the quarterback carousel COVID-19 created in 2020. Imatorbhebhe never broke the 1,000-yard or 10-touchdown mark in a season, but the wide receiver showed flashes of dominance in 2019, which helped carry Illinois to its first bowl game since 2014. 

One attribute Imatorbhebhe likes to throw around is dominant when given the opportunity to shine. His 2019 season was very unique in the sense that he didn’t consistently put up 100 yards a game. Despite that, Imatorbhebhe led the team with nine touchdown receptions, becoming Peters’ favorite target during crunch time. 

“It wasn’t like the red carpet was laid out for me,” Imatorbhebhe said about his time at Illinois. “I had to earn my respect and establish my role as a playmaker. It taught me how to trust the process, and climb and build.”

While Imatorbhebhe likely won’t hear his name called in the first two days of the draft, scouts do appreciate his raw talent and believe he can make a living competing against NFL secondaries. 

Labeled as an “enticing investment” by The Draft Network, Imatorbhebhe has a 6-foot-2 frame, good hands and explosiveness on the perimeter, and he thinks he could thrive in a system based around the vertical passing game. Still, they question whether he has the top-end speed to blow by defenders. 

Imatorbhebhe, though, doesn’t care about the stats or the speed, as he believes he’s an athlete that can be dominant when put in the right situation. He believes he’s an athlete who has gifted hands and takes advantage of his opportunities, while showcasing similarities to Seattle Seahawks wide receiver D.K. Metcalf.  

“We have similar college storylines, as our production wasn’t as high as it could have been,” Imatorbhebhe said. “But, we are both extremely athletic, we both have a lot of untapped potential, and he took off in the NFL. It’s definitely an inspiration for me to do the same.”

Imatorbhebhe has the skills, the confidence and the focus to have a career on Sundays. Since leaving Illinois’ program following the loss to Northwestern, the USC transfer has packed his bags and moved to Arizona to train under some of the best trainers in the profession within the EXOS program. 

With a track record of developing 915 NFL draft picks, EXOS prepares athletes for the 40-yard dash to even the Wonderlic test, and Imatorbhebhe is glad he listened to his NFL friends when selecting which route to take before draft day.  

His NFL investment from a Los Angeles boy to a Champaign townee is almost complete, with faith and letting the past fade away playing huge roles since his time at USC. While Illinois doesn’t have the glitz and glamour the Trojans could provide, playing under Lovie Smith allowed the Georgia native to gain a fresh start and prove his worth against strong Big Ten defenses. 

“I don’t like to play what-if games, but I know God does everything for a reason,” Imatorbhebhe said. “I just felt like it was time to leave (USC), and I couldn’t tell you what would happen if I stayed there.” 



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