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Long shot no more

Illinois' Jon Asamoah is rated as the No. 1 senior guard NFL prospect. Courtesy Illinois Sports Information

Jon Asamoah's aspiration coming out of high school was one day to see the field at Illinois.

Nothing more.

Asamoah couldn't even believe he was going to Illinois. He always dreamed of suiting up for the Illini, but coming out of Rich East High School, he was a slightly above-average offensive lineman who had a rating of two stars by most recruiting services and had offers from only Bowling Green, Cincinnati and Northern Illinois. He even committed to Northern Illinois just hours before the Illini came through with a scholarship for him.

Today, Mel Kiper Jr. knows who Jon Asamoah is.

Just for Kiper to speak his name would be enough for Asamoah, but the fact is Kiper knows his name, knows he stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 315 pounds, knows his strengths, knows his weaknesses, and is predicting him to be a first-round pick in the 2010 NFL draft.

"It's crazy to me," said Asamoah, a senior and three-year starter for Illinois. "I talk to my mom. We talk about it. Man, it's incredible. I remember back to recruiting, trying to get anybody to like me on film, get anyone to offer me.
"To be in this position I'm in, I count my blessings."

Asamoah's progression from someone Illinois took a chance on to a possible first-round selection has been full of ups and downs.

He credits some of his success to his work ethic, his competitive nature and his parents always preaching to him to strive to be the best. A lot of it also had to do with former Illinois offensive line coach Eric Wolford pushing him. Wolford, who is now at South Carolina, particularly altered Asamoah's mentality.

"Just the intensity, just the nastiness, you have to be a tough guy out there," Asamoah said. "You can't accept getting beat. You can't be the one soft guy in the group. He drove me to the ground. He kept riding me and riding me. That's what I needed."

Wolford broke Asamoah down, but he also built him up. Against Syracuse in 2007, Asamoah was getting beat constantly by the Orange's defensive line, and it was breaking his confidence.

"I remember that's when I hit rock bottom," Asamoah said. "He took me off to the side at halftime and said, 'I believe in you. I'm with you the whole way.' That really helped me then. He calmed me down and told me I could do this. He was close to me. It was like it was coming from my family. That was the moment. I remember that vividly."

As far as this season goes, there are mostly memories he would like to forget. He has an NFL career and millions of dollars in his near future, but it hasn't made Illinois' disappointing season any easier. Like everyone else, Asamoah had high expectations and hoped Illinois could make another run at a Rose Bowl.

A 1-6 season has changed what is important to him.

"At this point, I just want to win the next game," Asamoah said. "I don't even care about salvaging the season. I just want to win some games. That's enough for me.

"I couldn't tell you what specifically is going wrong. It's frustrating down here. It's just hard. Losing doesn't bring the best out of people. Things are easy when you're winning."

Early in the season, Asamoah avoided questions and even his own thoughts about being drafted. His mind was set on his senior year. With Illinois' struggles, he can't stop from looking ahead now.

Especially since he recently appeared on Kiper's Big Board at No. 25 and is ranked the No. 1 senior guard NFL prospect.

"He's kind of in the same boat as [Arrelious] Benn where you have a real talent on a team that has just totally lost its way in terms of what they are doing on the offensive side of the ball," Kiper said. "Asamoah is great talent. Obviously I think he's got first-round ability because I've had him on my Big Board. Moves really well, ideal size, and he's a versatile player. He'll be one of those guys where you have to watch the tape closely because everything can be falling apart for them on offense, but he's consistent."

They are real words by Kiper, but Asamoah has a hard time believing they are about him. He has come a long way from his modest goal as an Illinois freshman.

"Things like that are surreal to me," he said.

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.