Mount Carmel’s Kenenna Odeluga commits to Illinois

Odeluga, who had previously committed to Penn, announced Saturday he’ll be new coach Bret Bielema’s first in-state recruit at Illinois.

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Mount Carmel’s Kenenna Odeluga (36) scores a touchdown against Willowbrook.

Mount Carmel’s Kenenna Odeluga (36) scores a touchdown against Willowbrook.

Kirsten Stickney/For the Sun-Times

Kenenna Odeluga trusted in the process and it couldn’t have turned out better.

After the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, the two-way standout for Mount Carmel didn’t know if he’d have a senior season and didn’t know where he’d be playing college football.

Now he’s days away from that final high school season and, after a whirlwind recruiting process, headed to the school of his dreams.

Odeluga, who had previously committed to Penn, announced Saturday he’ll be new coach Bret Bielema’s first in-state recruit at Illinois.

“It was kind of a shock, but it was a good kind of shock,” said Odeluga, a 6-foot, 200-pounder who plays running back and linebacker for the Caravan.

The process started when Bielema reached out to Mount Carmel coach Jordan Lynch about Odeluga, who will be playing linebacker in college. Odeluga talked to some Illini assistants and then to Bielema, who made an offer,

“You never expect to get a full-ride scholarship this late in the process,” Odeluga said.

Like a lot of other in-state players, Odeluga wasn’t on the radar of previous coach Lovie Smith’s staff. That was a point of contention for Illinois high school coaches, who watched the Illini struggling both on the field and in keeping local talent home.

Bielema made it clear from the start he was planning to chart a different course. 

“From what we saw from the last coaching regime, it was pretty evident they didn’t recruit much in-state,” Odeluga said.

Now Odeluga’s commitment marks the beginning of a new era in Champaign.

“I grew up watching the U.of I. To (commit) there, it’s kind of a dream come true,” he said.

With four Ivy League offers, Odeluga always was going to make academics a big part of his college decision. Illinois’ Gies College of Business is ranked as one of the best in the nation, so that box is checked off as well.

It all makes for a happy ending to a story that could have gone in another direction.

“At the beginning of the (school) year, everything was in flux,” Odeluga said. “Recruiting got messed up.

“Everything happens for a reason, and this is the outcome. I get to play six more games with my brothers.”

And he gets to look forward to playing in the Big Ten, following the tradition of such other Mount Carmel standouts as Simeon Rice.

“Most of the (Mount Carmel) defensive coaches actually coached him,” Odeluga said. “I see that the Mount Carmel to Illinois pipeline has been introduced again.”

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