CHAMPAIGN — There was a point in time when Oluwole Betiku Jr. was at USC, that he didn't have much in the way of football news to offer his parents when he called them.
The most snaps he said he'd played in a game while with the Trojans was eight. He had a stretch of seven games with one snap each game. He missed the entirety of last season with a hip injury. His parents knew Betiku's time would come, though.
Now, when the Illinois junior defensive end calls his parents, his mother in Dallas and his father in their home country of Nigeria, the football updates are completely different. After two weeks, Betiku is getting his chance and leads the nation in sacks (5) and tackles for a loss (6.5).
Not even Betiku could believe where he ranked in the country when he first saw the picture, tweeted out by offensive coordinator Rod Smith.
“I felt like it was photoshopped or something,” Betiku said, before pausing to laugh.
“It feels great, but it’s just the beginning. I’m trying to get better. I know I’ve got a long way to go and we’ve got a lot more games. I want to play in a very big bowl game this year, and I want to wear a bowl-game ring with pride and I want to feel like I really contributed to it and the whole team is happy.
“Right now it ain’t about the sacks or the numbers. It’s about winning for me. I don’t even count when I’m on the field. I just play."
His parents haven't seen many, if any, of those sacks or tackles for a loss in real time. Betiku's mother's busy work schedule prevents her from catching most of his games, and the access to college football games in Nigeria is limited, forcing his father to have to keep up with his son through highlights or interviews.
These kind of phone updates will have to suffice for now, but the emotions the family shares with each call is meaningful.
“It was really amazing," Betiku said. "(His father) was really happy. I’ve never heard that much happiness since I started talking to him about my sports career."
Growing up in Nigeria, Betiku's father was instrumental in helping his son fall in love with sports, and was serious about sports and training, Betiku told a throng of media members on Monday from the eighth-floor press box at Memorial Stadium. His father offered to train anyone in the family, but none of Betiku's cousins had much interest in sports or sculpting their body.
Betiku did, though.
His dad made him his first weight set, and he was off and running. He's parlayed those beginnings, with no stipends or proper nutrition plan, into a push for a graduate degree and a fresh start at the University of Illinois.
“There’s nothing more than getting that from your parents, especially my dad because I haven’t seen him in a while, like six years," Betiku said. "He’s been a big part of my journey ... just getting that response from him is seeing the product of his investment."
Both of his parents remind him to just be himself, and he's taken that advice to heart in Champaign. He meditates in his free time and changed his pregame routine. When he was a freshman and sophomore at USC, he listened to music before games to lock into a zone. That system is out the window. At Illinois, he sits in the locker room and observes while mapping out the game in his mind. He stays in the moment. At the heart of all of this is still a game.
When he gets on the field, though, defensive line coach Austin Clark is instrumental in helping Betiku flip the switch, turning him into an unrelenting force that is as tiring on opponents' bodies as he is their minds. Betiku plays the long con on offensive tackles. He gives them a little bit to eat in the first quarters, but holds the main dish back for later in the game. Just when the tackle thinks he's got Betiku figured out, he wheels out the main course to blow past the offensive lineman and hurries straight to the quarterback.
Betiku had 3.5 sacks in Saturday's win at UConn, but both Betiku and Illinois head coach Lovie Smith recognize there are a few plays that Betiku left on the field. They know there is more.
“If you just look at his athletic ability, you assume he can rush the passer, too,” Lovie Smith said. “I’m anxious to see him take another step this week. The sky’s the limit.”