O'Donnell bridges the past to the future
Illinois senior left guard Martin O'Donnell handled two positions during the spring football season.
O'Donnell, of course, held down the spot where he's started 44 of the 46 games in his career. In spring practice, O'Donnell also watched over the development of left tackle Xavier Fulton. A defensive tackle during his first 2 1/2 years at Illinois, Fulton needed a crash course on the offensive line in his move from reserve defensive lineman to potential starter on offense.
"He made it worlds easier,'' Fulton said. "It was, 'X, you've got this guy. X, you got that guy.' It was that way for at least two weeks.''
The school's first player named as a first-team All-America since Kevin Hardy in 1995 and the first offensive lineman to earn first-team All-America since Dick Butkus in 1963, O'Donnell anchors an offensive line that leads No. 13 Illinois (9-3) and its powerful running game against No. 6 Southern Cal (10-2) in the Rose Bowl on Tuesday (3:30 p.m., ABC).
"I was shocked to get all-Big Ten stuff,'' O'Donnell said. "It started snow-balling from there.''
With his stature as Fulton's personal graduate assistant and his evolution as "the last man standing'' from a five-man offensive line recruiting class in 2003 under former coach Ron Turner, O'Donnell bridges the past to the future.
The 6-foot-5, 322-pound O'Donnell doesn't claim to be a physical specimen. Instead, he uses his head to get the job done. He's a thinking man's offensive lineman.
"I'm not the strongest guy or the fastest guy,'' O'Donnell said. "I try to play with my head. I try to outsmart people and be crafty.
"I'm always trying to point out certain things when you watch film. There are certain things you can pick up on people. The more experience you have, you realize what people want to do with certain moves and certain times.''
A Parade All-American as a Downers Grove South High School senior, O'Donnell chose Illinois over Nebraska, Stanford, Oregon and Iowa. Like linebacker J Leman, O'Donnell's draft stock isn't expected to be as a first-day pick. His chances improve in the last couple rounds of the draft.
"If you're an All-American and a first-team all-Big Ten, you're going to have a chance to go to the next level,'' offensive coordinator Mike Locksley said. "Because of the experience of playing in a conference like the Big Ten, you'll have an opportunity to go out and try your hand playing on Sunday.''
Illinois led the Big Ten in rushing and ranked fifth nationally by averaging 266.2 yards per game. O'Donnell is the leader of the offensive line.
"Any time your teams leads the Big Ten in rushing two years in a row, it's not by chance that it happens,'' Locksley said. "Something good is going on upfront. He's been a steady force. He's a guy who played a lot of football and doesn't make a lot of mistakes. He's not the most athletic looking guy. He finds a way to grade out at a high level.
"He brings leadership and all the intangibles to the table. He's the guy who has been recognized. Any one of theose four or five guys up front have played well enough to get credit.''
O'Donnell arrived on campus as part of a heralded group of linemen. But the rest of the class --- James Ryan, Ben Amundsen, Jim Labonte and James Ryan -- had varied degree of success before leaving the program. Amundsen is still listed on the roster but unable to play after a leg injury.
"I remember our first year, talking ab out when we're fifth-year seniors,'' O'Donnell said. "We'll be doing this and blah, blah, blah. None of that really happened. I stay in contact with some of them. It's hard. You're used to being around these guys all day. Life goes on.''
When the All-America team was announced, O'Donnell was in class. He graduated earlier this month with a master's degree in human resource education, finishing as academic all-Big Ten.
Fulton had to calm down after learning O'Donnell was an All-American. O'Donnell was doing interviews in the other room.
"If one us is getting honored, all of us are getting honored,'' Fulton said. "We all know each other's assignments and know were to go. We're pretty much one entity.''
If so, O'Donnell leads by using his head.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. For more coverage, read Illini Talk blog at www.sj-r.com and www.pjstar.com.