Cal Football: Lovie Smith Pays Tribute to Two Top Linebackers Headed to Redbox

Jeff Faraudo

Illinois coach Lovie Smith - who once led the Chicago Bears to a Super Bowl - appreciates defense as much as anyone.

He embraces the Illini's Redbox Bowl matchup against Cal on Dec. 30 at Levi's Stadium and says his team has a player who measures up nicely against Bears star Evan Weaver.

(By the way, does this man have the greatest beard you have ever seen?)

"Dele Harding is just an outstanding football player," Smith said. "I've had the privilege of coaching some very good linebackers during my career. When you go through and you've meant so much to a program, you'd like for them to finish it off with a career year, and that's exactly what he did.

"He's as productive a linebacker as there was in college football."

Well, maybe the second-most productive linebacker in college football.

While Harding finished the regular season with 148 tackles to rank second nationally, Weaver led the country from start to finish and takes 173 tackles into the Redbox Bowl.

Smith all but labeled Harding and Weaver the game's marquee players.

"I love coaching a lot of positions," Smith said, "but it you had to pin me down the linebacker position is probably my favorite that I've ever coached. For this game to have two outstanding linebackers . . . that should be a lot of fun for purists, defensive football people."

On a separate topic, Smith seemed to indicate that starting quarterback Brandon Peters will be available for the Redbox Bowl.

A graduate transfer from Michigan, Peters had a strong final season but missed the regular-season finale against rival Northwestern because of a concussion. Without him, the Illini struggled offensively in a 29-10 loss to one of the Big Ten's worst teams.

Without providing too much detail, Smith said Peters is getting better.