CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Illinois coach Ron Zook considers middle linebacker J Leman a cerebral guy.
"He's smart. He's tough. He's strong," the coach said.
But Zook missed one adjective when describing Leman: ambitious.
Leman received his bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois this week, and is working on a master's degree he plans to have by the time his two remaining seasons of eligibility with the Illini are through.
"I get two degrees out of a five-year scholarship. It's totally worth it," he said.
Leman -- J is short for Jeremy -- took a redshirt and didn't play his freshman season. But he hit the books, rarely -- if ever -- missing a class and taking more than most of his teammates.
Two years ago, after deciding he would take three sessions of summer school, Leman realized it would be possible to get his bachelor's in speech communication before he started his junior season on the football field. But it would take some extra work.
"This last semester, I had to take a stretch of 20 hours. One summer, I had to take 13 hours. It was like an extra semester of work," he said this week.
But he realized the book work would pay off. It would be possible to obtain a master's degree before using up his football eligibility and scholarship.
And he's not skating by, either. He made the Dean's List on four of the six fall and spring semesters since he entered Illinois in 2003, including this spring's 20-hour semester.
"I'm working on my first degree still and he's getting two before I'm done," teammate and friend Drew McMahon said. "I couldn't even fathom doing that."
Especially given the demands placed on a major-college football player, a starter no less.
"It doesn't surprise anybody," McMahon said. "The hard worker that he is, is a testament to the success that he's had."
Leman was Illinois' second-leading tackler with 67 last season, which he spent playing on the outside. He's started 16 consecutive games during the past two seasons and figures to be the middle linebacker when the Illini open against Eastern Illinois on Sept. 2.
"He's right in tune with what's going on," Zook said. "He's kind of a calming force. He's a leader."
Yet he's also intense on the field, so much so that he's part of a team TV commercial in which he stares into the camera and says, "I want to HIT somebody."
For Leman, a graduate of Champaign's Central High, anything beats mowing lawns, a chore he did throughout his younger years helping with his family's lawn-care business. He's pursuing a master's in human resource education, something he says fits his gregarious personality.
"As long as I can be somewhere I can talk to people and communicate. I think that's one of my strengths is talking with people and my social skills," he said. "If I can do that, I'll be happy."