CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Head coach Lovie Smith has been very impressed with defensive lineman Johnny Newton so far this year.
“There’s a lot when you’re a young athlete, just coming on campus and figuring out how to do things. I just like his work ethic. He loves football. Coachable. Just checks off all the boxes.”
Newton was a 230-pound high school running back who made the transition to defensive line late in his high school career. He was recruited by various schools, including fellow Big Ten rival Maryland, and even committed to the Terps, but decommitted and chose Illinois — with education in mind.
The Florida native came in this year around 250 pounds with the intent to play on the defensive line with Illinois.
All of a sudden, the freshman sits at roughly 270 pounds — thanks to Lou Hernandez’ strength and conditioning regiment — and has been active with five tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in two games with Illinois.
Aside from joining a football program that Newton bought into, Illinois was especially attractive to him because of its highly touted engineering program. Despite not getting into the Grainger College of Engineering, Newton mentioned his intention to keep trying.
The now-defensive lineman has huge goals moving forward.
“I hope to turn the football program around,” Newton said. “I wanna help the defense become better, help better recruits come here.”
But for Newton, those goals extend off the field into the classroom and beyond.
“After football, I really want to have my own mechanical engineering business and I want to design cars.”
Newton, now united with childhood best friend Deuce Spann, is grateful to be a part of the Illinois program and have a chance to play after contracting and beating COVID-19 in August.
And as for his history playing running back...
“Hopefully [Lovie Smith] lets me get back there and get the rock.”