CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Illinois defensive end Sean Adesanya looks the part. He hasn't played it.
The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Adesanya comes into his third year at Illinois with zero appearances for the Illini. Yet coach Lovie Smith believes he could anchor the defense now that he's finally healthy after missing two seasons because of a torn labrum and ruptured Achilles tendon.
''It's been a long time he's been around here (and) hasn't played,'' Smith said. ''Coming off of an injury, he's ready to go.''
Smith inherited a huge rebuilding project in the wake of the Tim Beckman era and is counting on upperclassmen such as Adesanya and the newcomers to help get the program pointed in the right direction. The Illini won just three games last year in Smith's first season. But Smith sees Adesanya playing a big role on an inexperienced defensive line with eight freshmen.
It's a big opportunity for a player who has experienced more than his share of difficulties, including wondering where his next meal would come from as a child in Africa. Born in Nigeria, Adesanya was 7 when his family moved to the U.S.
''Back then, when I was in Nigeria, I didn't have lights some nights or I didn't have something to eat,'' Adesanya said. ''But I still fought through it. My parents they always say, `You know where you came from. You know your background. You know how we are, we just keep going.'''
Adesanya didn't start playing until a friend urged him to try it while in middle school.
''My best friend in seventh grade told me about the game,'' Adesanya said. ''They said, `Sean you have big size. You need to play football.' My parents weren't with it at first. They were like, `Nah, football's too aggressive.' I begged them to let me play, and when I played that's when I just took off.''
Adesanya became a star at Rahway High School in New Jersey, yet was forced to go the junior college route because he didn't get much attention from major programs. He wound up at Eastern Arizona Junior College and played well enough to get offers from Pittsburgh and Memphis as well as Illinois. He accepted an offer from Beckman. Now, he gets to play for a defensive-minded coach who led the 2006 Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl.
''Being with Coach Smith, I'd say the IQ of my football knowledge went up drastically,'' Adesanya said. ''He teaches you to watch film and take the ball away. Because as a defensive position player, our primary goal is to get the offense back the ball. So that's what coach Smith preaches all the time.''
Adesanya was pushed hard by former teammates Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips. They set an example for him, and they're now in the NFL. Adesanya wants to show he can play in the Big Ten.
''From the time the season was over last year, you could see it in his eyes,'' defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said. ''He's been working his butt off and doing the things necessary to get himself ready to play and play at a high level.
''He looks great. He's had a great summer and a great spring, and we're hoping that carries over into training camp and into the season.''
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