Leman Draws Attention While Leading Illini To Rose Bowl

Leman led the 13th-ranked Illini on a surprising run to the Rose Bowl

Dec. 29, 2007

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) - J Leman finds peace when a lawnmower is buzzing in his ear.

He loves watching infomercials, too, because who isn't fascinated by the latest, greatest juice-making machines? And don't ask about his diet: "I can't talk about the diet. It's per Coach's rules."

The star linebacker may have his quirks, but Illinois knows exactly what to expect every time he steps on the field.

All but ignored coming out of high school, Leman led the 13th-ranked Illini on a surprising run to the Rose Bowl and a meeting with No. 6 Southern California. A second-team All-American, the senior has 124 tackles and is averaging 10.33 - tied for 22nd in the nation and third in the Big Ten. He's about to play in his biggest game, and he can't help but look beyond that.

"To say I haven't thought about it would definitely be a lie," Leman said.

And to say playing in the NFL was a realistic goal would have seemed like a stretch five years ago.

Leman, whose given name is Jeremy Jacob Leman, got just two scholarship offers late in his senior season at Champaign Central - one from Illinois State, the other from the hometown university. He weighed 205 pounds coming out of high school, didn't have much speed, but he wasted little time stepping on the fast track once he got to college.

He needed just three years to earn a degree in speech communications, and he just finished his masters in human resource education. His progress on the field was just as rapid.

"I knew once some school gave me a chance I'd work my way into getting some playing time, and now, I'm kind of in the same situation," he said. "If one team gives me a chance, I'll work my way and make that team. I'm just asking for a chance."

Leman made the most of his opportunity at Illinois.

He adopted a high-protein diet that involves raw eggs, olive oil, nuts and cheese to bulk up early in his college career, and he now carries 243 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame. Leman would not discuss his culinary ideas because coach Ron Zook would prefer he keeps them to himself.



"What I just said is, 'If I were you, I wouldn't spend a whole lot of time talking about your diet," Zook said. "One man's opinion."

The coach is concerned that others will think he's "kind of goofy" and would rather direct the focus toward Leman's performance.

In a league with several outstanding linebackers, Leman was a first-team all-conference pick along with Ohio State's James Laurinaitis and Penn State's Dan Connor.

"When you need a big tackle on third-and-1, he's making that play," Southern California offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. "When you need a tipped ball for an interception, he's the guy who tips it. When you need a big sack, he happens to make the big sack.

"You see why he garners so much respect in that conference and around the country, because he plays so well."

He dominated at No. 1 Ohio State, collecting 12 tackles in a stunning 28-21 victory on Nov. 10, and he came up big in back-to-back wins over No. 21 Penn State and No. 5 Wisconsin earlier in the season. He broke up a touchdown pass and had an interception on the same drive against the Nittany Lions, and recorded 12 tackles against Wisconsin.

Besides being an outstanding player, Leman is a good talker.

It makes sense, then, that he would love to become a sportscaster when he's finished with football. He interviewed teammates on Zook's show, but he took his first shot at the business years earlier, he he and his older brother A.J. would pretend to call their oldest brother J.D.'s basketball games.

It's safe to say they weren't ready to replace Bob Costas or Al Michaels. They didn't know the players' names, so they'd call out numbers instead.

His interests extend beyond the football field and the broadcast booth. He's a devout Christian and, in general, a sponge for information who wants to be "a lifelong learner."

He also has that fascination with infomercials.

His favorites?

"The Jack LaLanne Power Juicer, any exercise equipment," he said. "The Magic Bullet, all those things."

The Magic Bullet? It's a blender that's billed as the "personal, versatile countertop magician."

"They can do everything in 10 seconds or less," Leman said.

Why does he love infomercials?

"Why wouldn't I like those things?" he said. "Those things are on all the time. Great deals. Great little gadgets you can buy."

Leman said he's bought only one - a "can opener thing" for his mother that was "a total bust."

His love for mowing lawns?

Well, his dad ran a lawncare service in the Champaign area for about 15 years, and Leman and his brothers worked for him while growing up.

"He wanted to instill that work ethic in us," he said. "You have to work hard to get stuff that you want in life."