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Locals Jahleel Billingsley, Tuf Borland meet again in College Football Playoff championship

Billingsley, a sophomore from Phillips, and Borland, a senior from Bolingbrook, spent time playing for the same youth program.

Alabama tight end Jahleel Billingsley (19) reaches up to catch a touchdown pass in the first half of the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game against Notre Dame in Arlington, Texas, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021.
Alabama tight end Jahleel Billingsley (19) reaches up to catch a touchdown pass in the first half of the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game against Notre Dame in Arlington, Texas, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021.
AP Photos

Sometime during the College Football Playoff championship game Monday, Alabama tight end Jahleel Billingsley might run a pass route and find himself covered by Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland.

It wouldn’t be the first time they crossed paths.

Billingsley, a sophomore from Phillips, and Borland, a senior from Bolingbrook, spent time playing for the same youth program. Even then, their Naperville Patriots coaches say, their talent was evident.

Borland spent one season with the Patriots as an eighth-grader, helping coach Doug DiFusco’s team win a national championship in 2011.

Then, as now, Borland was a standout linebacker — and a leader on the field.

‘‘He knows where everyone is supposed to be,’’ DiFusco said. ‘‘His IQ for the game is off the charts. The one thing you noticed about Tuf is he’s seeing things before they developed.’’

That continued at Bolingbrook, where Borland was one of a handful of four-year starters during John Ivlow’s 18 seasons as coach, and at Ohio State, where he is only the second three-year captain in program history.

Borland, a 6-1, 234-pounder, was the defensive MVP of the Buckeyes’ Sugar Bowl victory against Clemson and has 34 tackles, the second-most on the team, heading into the national championship.

Borland, whose middle name really is Tuf, projected to be an elite player because of his combination of smarts and, well, toughness.

‘‘The high school game is a lot of processing between the ears,’’ DiFusco said. ‘‘You [also] have to be physically strong enough. He wasn’t, physically, going to have a problem.’’

Justin Fields #1 and Tuf Borland #32 of the Ohio State Buckeyes react after the game against the Clemson Tigers during the College Football Playoff semifinal game at the Allstate Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 01, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Justin Fields #1 and Tuf Borland #32 of the Ohio State Buckeyes react after the game against the Clemson Tigers during the College Football Playoff semifinal game at the Allstate Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 01, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
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‘‘His football IQ is probably the highest that I’ve ever had,’’ Ivlow said. ‘‘He can go up there and draw up every position on the field.’’

Borland’s intelligence is evident off the field, too: He already has earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Ohio State.

Billingsley, meanwhile, spent several years with the Patriots, playing defensive line and quarterback.

What stood out even then was his selflessness.

‘‘He’s the ultimate example . . . for any young player and young person to be a team player,’’ Patriots coach Joe Costello said. ‘‘He just showed up for work every day and worked and worked and worked.

‘‘I’ve coached for 13 seasons, maybe 400 or 500 kids. He’s in the top 10 for work ethic.’’

Billingsley’s ceiling has kept growing since.

‘‘As a youth football coach, you see kids who reach their peak in sixth grade,’’ Costello said. ‘‘He was just the opposite.’’

Billingsley’s other calling card is his versatility, all the way from youth ball through high school to college.

Costello remembers his potential as a quarterback.

‘‘He had a cannon for an arm,’’ he said.

At Phillips, Billingsley still was playing both ways, lining up at tight end, receiver, wildcat quarterback and defensive line.

‘‘He was our best long snapper; he was our best punter,’’ Phillips coach Troy McAllister said. ‘‘He has a unique ability, athletically, to do whatever is required of him.’’

That has continued to be true at Alabama, where Billingsley has 16 catches for 260 yards and a touchdown as a tight end. And at 6-4 and 230 pounds, he also has emerged as the Crimson Tide’s top kickoff returner with a 20.5-yard average.

McAllister isn’t surprised.

‘‘He’s just very secure with the ball,’’ McAllister said. ‘‘You don’t see a tight end doing that.’’