Leman fits the mold of prior successful Illinois LBs

LOS ANGELES -- The sharp-dressed TV wise guy wandered up to the dais where Illinois All-American linebacker J Leman was sitting on Saturday morning. The TV reporter had a white three-ring binder in his hand and a camera following close behind.

During an awkward moment, the reporter offered Leman what was allegedly a stolen copy of Southern California's offensive audibles. The binder even had the Trojans' logo on the cover.

"You sure you don't want it?" the reporter asked.

"No, we're good," Leman told him. "We don't need a cheat sheet."

"It isn't real anyway," the reporter admitted.

It wouldn't have mattered if the playbook were authentic. The reporter had picked the wrong Illinois player to frame.

Leman, a senior from Champaign, Ill., took no shortcuts in becoming Illinois' most celebrated linebacker since Dana Howard and Kevin Hardy won consecutive Butkus Awards in the mid-1990s. Of course, the Butkus Award is named after Dick Butkus, the greatest Illinois linebacker of all time.

Leman fits the Butkus mold. A rough-and-tough middle linebacker, Leman led the Illini with 124 tackles and had 9½ tackles for loss and 2½ sacks. He was named first-team All-American by the American Football Coaches Association and All-Big Ten by media members and the league's coaches.

Leman met Butkus, one of his heroes, at the Illini's practice on Friday.

"He said to just go hit somebody," Leman said. "That's what he did. I think every day, you have to prove yourself. If you look at Dick Butkus, after every game and every season, he was never satisfied. This was the toughest and meanest linebacker and he was never satisfied."

Southern California coach Pete Carroll, whose No. 7 Trojans play No. 13 Illinois in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day (ABC, 4:30 p.m. ET), said it's easy to see that Leman is rarely satisfied.

"You can just feel his confidence," Carroll said. "He's a very sharp kid. He's tough and runs all over the field and makes plays everywhere. He is physically talented. He's a big kid and looks like one of our guys." Leman, 22, is the son of two pastors. His mother, Dianne Leman, was told by doctors she'd never be able to have children. She had four sons and one daughter. Happy Leman, his father, instilled a strong work ethic in his sons at a young age. The family operated a lawn service for several years, cutting about 70 lawns in Champaign-Urbana each summer.

"I think my dad was doing it for a number of reasons," Leman said. "He wanted to show us you have to work hard to get things you want in life, and he wanted to keep us busy. It helped pay for my older brothers to go to college."

Leman thought he'd need the money to pay college tuition, too. He was a lightly recruited player at Champaign Central High School. Until the end of his senior year, his only scholarship offer was to play tight end at Division I-AA Illinois State. But before the final game of his high school career, Illinois offered him a scholarship to play linebacker.

Leman redshirted in 2003 and was hampered by a back injury as a freshman. He started his college career at outside linebacker and struggled to run with tight ends and running backs.

"I think people always questioned my speed," Leman said. "I wasn't very big coming out of high school. So really, I didn't have size or speed. But there are some things you can't measure in a player -- effort, heart and toughness."

Leman has all three of those attributes and much more. He was named freshman All-Big Ten in 2004 and started all 11 games for Illinois as a sophomore. After moving to middle linebacker before his junior season, Leman had 152 tackles and 19 tackles for loss in 2006. But because the Illini struggled to win only two games in each of coach Ron Zook's first two seasons, Leman was overshadowed by other Big Ten linebackers.

"He's been through the tough times," Illinois linebacker Brit Miller said. "He said the other day, 'You can't have the sweet without the bitter.' He's definitely had the bitter. To go out and lose in front of 50,000 people, that's not a good thing. Those guys did it 11 times in one year. You can't send out J Leman in a better way than what we've done this year."

Even after leading the Illini to one of the best turnarounds in recent college football history, Leman is still having to prove himself. He isn't considered first-round talent by most NFL scouts, many of whom prefer Ohio State's James Laurinaitis and Penn State's Dan Connor, each of whom is taller and faster than Leman.

Illinois linebackers coach Dan Disch, who also works as the team's co-defensive coordinator, said Leman is as good as his Big Ten counterparts.

"He's one of those overachievers," Disch said. "He has a great work ethic. He has all the intangibles. A lot of people like to say he doesn't have all the skills you need, but I'd take him over anybody. He's a hardworking guy. He's a smart guy. He's a high-production guy and that's what it's all about for me."

Leman used a high-protein diet to add bulk to his 6-foot-3 frame. He now weighs about 240 pounds. Leman reportedly favors a diet rich in raw eggs, olive oil, nuts and cheese. He learned of the diet from his grandfather, who used to snack on raw eggs by puncturing them with his finger.

When Zook read of Leman's diet earlier this season, he advised his star player to quit talking about it. Zook feared NFL scouts might consider Leman some sort of rebel. Leman's long, unkempt blond hair also might suggest he has a wild side.

"I can't talk about the diet per coach's rules," Leman said.

NFL scouts certainly don't have to worry about Leman's character. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in speech communication in less than four years and earned a master's degree in human resources earlier this month. He was awarded an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship as a finalist for the Draddy Trophy, which is given to college football's best player in terms of academic success, athletic performance and community leadership.

Leman remains actively involved with his parents' nondenominational church, Vineyard Christian Fellowship in Champaign, which Zook regularly attends.

If pro football doesn't work out, Leman hopes to become a sports broadcaster. Or he might choose a more unique profession -- as the voice for infomercials. Leman admits being an infomercial junkie and often watches TV late at night while his teammates are sleeping. Leman has purchased a product only once after watching an infomercial. He bought a can opener for his mother and admits it was a "total bust."

"I like to watch them," Leman said. "I'm always fascinated with them. I think it would be fun. I think it would be a good job. I'd never endorse a product that I didn't think worked well."

Leman's favorite infomercials are those hawking exercise products and kitchen gadgets, particularly the "Magic Bullet."

"It's the personal countertop magician," Leman said. "It can do anything in 10 seconds or less. It does it all."

Kind of like the Illini's middle linebacker.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.