Oluwole Betiku leads both the Illini and the nation in sacks after two games, just months removed from Illinois losing Bobby Roundtree, the team’s best pass rusher a season ago, to a spinal cord injury.
Betiku transferred from USC and was able to meet Roundtree on his official visit to Illinois earlier this year, shortly before Roundtree’s career — and life — took a devastating turn.
Many of the details are still foggy surrounding the incident, but what is known is the junior was in a swimming accident in Florida that led to a “severe spinal injury,” forcing him to undergo surgery. Head coach Lovie Smith made mention in a press conference that the team is still in constant contact with him and that he is getting better day by day.
Nobody has said for sure if Roundtree will ever play football again, but he is currently inactive for a hefty amount of time and the Illini will have to operate without him.
Roundtree led the Illinois defense in 2018, tallying 7.5 sacks and 66 tackles in a 4-8 campaign. Heading into the season without him is a huge blow for a defense that gave up the most points in the Big Ten last year.
That’s where Oluwole Betiku Jr. — once a five-star recruit — comes in. Betiku, or Wole, has five sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in his first two games, both of which lead the nation.
You might assume that because Betiku never played with Roundtree he wouldn’t really know him or feel his absence the way some of the veterans would, but that seemingly isn’t the case. Roundtree was a major contributor in Betiku’s recruitment, so much so that it was a factor in his decision.
“I really looked forward to playing with him before I came here and we talked a lot before and after my official visit,” Betiku said. “I saw him before and during summer I went over to see him in Chicago.”
That dream may or may not come true for Betiku, but what would Roundtree say to him after his stellar performance across the first two weeks?
“‘Good job, proud of you, bro,” Betiku said.
“Last time I spoke to him, he told me ‘just go kill it,’ and every day before the game we just remind ourselves we’re doing it for our brother. We wish he was here and we play with that effort.”
The Illini have done a good job of keeping Bobby Roundtree’s presence felt in the locker room and in meetings.
When Illinois constructed its new multi-million dollar facility and ginormous locker room, the team made sure No. 97 got his locker.
Great gesture by @IlliniFootball to give #97 his locker #Illini pic.twitter.com/PFyl3WEgzv— Anthony Pasquale (@Ant_Pasquale3) August 26, 2019
That is not the only way the Illini are able to make Roundtree’s presence felt.
Betiku even mentioned that Roundtree talks with the defensive line occasionally via FaceTime at defensive line meetings.
“We keep his spirits up,” Betiku said.
With 10 games left, Betiku currently sits just 2.5 sacks away from Roundtree’s career high.
So, it is fair to say he and the rest of the line is filling Roundtree’s gap?
“It’s impossible to fill Bobby Roundtree’s shoes,” Betiku said. “I mean the energy he brought, how passionate he played, you know he’s a player we would love to have here right now and we all miss him everyday... So I mean it’s impossible to replace Bobby Roundtree, but all we can do is just play for him and play with the same type of effort he played with when he was here.”
Betiku and the defense have impressed thus far, allowing just three points in the first game against Akron, and 23 on the road against Connecticut, although seven of those came via a pick-six. Betiku hss led the charge for the defense that ranks second in the Big Ten in both sacks (11) and interceptions (3).
Lovie Smith said before the season that the team will miss Roundtree, and even though the Illini have faired well without him, they know that is not due to his absence. But instead perhaps due to how motivated the team is to play for him. They certainly miss him, and have all dedicated their season to No. 97.
The team has also not given up on its hopes of having its star back on the field one day.
“I wanna see him come back to get to play with him one day,” Betiku said. “It’s just sad to think about what happened.”
Or what could have been.
Imagine the havoc Roundtree and Betiku would create rushing opposing quarterbacks on opposite ends of the line. Maybe one day that will become a reality, but for now, Betiku is set on playing for his brother Roundtree.
So let’s recap. Playing for Roundtree, Betiku...
- Leads the nation in sacks
- Has helped the Illini to an unblemished record
- Led his team to road non-conference win for the first time in 12 years
- And has given his team a chance to finish undefeated in non-conference play for the first time in Lovie’s tenure
Not bad for his brother.
“We just play for him, we play for him and we really wish he was here.”