CHAMPAIGN — Two phone calls helped set Rod Perry on his path from South Carolina State to Illinois.
The first was unexpected. Perry learned the news of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference postponing its season to the spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic from a S.C. State coach in mid-July. That a coach was urging his preseason All-American defensive tackle to transfer and find a place to play this fall was rather unexpected.
“When my coach called me I said, ‘Are you sure? Maybe the season will start back up?’” Perry said Wednesday. “It wasn’t my initial thought to transfer because I wanted to finish it out with South Carolina State because they gave me my chance — my first chance — out of high school to play D-I ball. I didn’t want to leave them.”
But it didn’t take long for the 6-foot-2, 300-pound Perry to draw notice in the transfer portal given his success at S.C. State. And while he spent 12 hours in a single day on various Zoom meetings with different coaching staffs, the only phone call he received from a head coach during the entire process came from Lovie Smith at Illinois.
The personal touch mattered. Two weeks after the MEAC halted its fall sports, Perry committed to the Illini. Not that there weren’t some hurdles to clear once he made it to Champaign.
“I got here, and as soon as I cleared quarantine, the season was canceled,” Perry said. “So I was like, ‘OK, it looks like I’m just chilling.’ Then they start it back up so I was like, ‘OK, time to go to work.’”
Illinois had its first padded practice Wednesday morning as its do-over on training camp continued ahead of the Oct. 24 season opener at No. 19 Wisconsin. Expect Perry to be on the field with the first-team defense. Smith has already said he sees his newest defensive tackle lining up alongside veteran lineman Jamal Woods.
“He came here with a purpose,” Smith said of Perry. “He wanted to play major college football, and he’s of course going to get his chance.”
Defensive tackle was a point of emphasis as Smith added to his roster this offseason. Illinois graduated three from that position group last season in Jamal Milan, Tymir Oliver and Kenyon Jackson, leaving a rather notable hole in the rotation.
Freshmen Johnny Newton, Tre’Von Riggins and Quinton McCoy, plus junior-college transfer Anthony Shipton, were all added in Illinois’ 2020 recruiting class. The Illini pursued Perry this summer because of his experience. The Raleigh, N.C., native earned All-MEAC honors in two of his three seasons at S.C. State and left the Bulldogs with 67 tackles, 21 tackles for loss and 5 1/2 sacks.
“By going after a player like Rod, we felt like we needed some help,” Smith said. “Luckily, Rod was kind of a godsend a little bit — a guy that was looking for an opportunity, a guy that played at a high level. It was kind of a perfect storm a little bit with him.”
Even with the opportunity presented at Illinois, Perry said leaving S.C. State was a difficult decision. That he was immediately supported by both his teammates and family helped immensely.
“When I first thought about it I was like, ‘I don’t want to be considered like a traitor or nothing. I’m going to wait it out and see what happens,’” Perry said. “As soon as they heard I was in the transfer portal they were like, ‘Rod, do it, do it.’ All the support from my family and peers really helped me.”
The Illinois coaching staff had some help in Perry’s recruitment. Wofford graduate transfer offensive lineman Blake Jeresaty, who Perry played against in 2019, put in a good word for the Illini. Perry also knew he’d have fraternity connections on the Illinois campus to help settle in to a new school, team and community.
The phone call from Smith, of course, played a key role, too.
“Illinois was genuine,” Perry said. “It felt real. It’s a business decision, but at the same time I want to feel like I can come back and enjoy it and be a part of the family.”
Perry has made a smooth transition to Illinois. He doesn’t have to start every conversation with, “Hey, I’m Rod, the new guy,” and he’s developed a rapport with his teammates. One that will only grow the longer he’s anchoring the middle of the Illini’s defensive front.
“I’m definitely a person who likes to lead by example,” Perry said. “When I first came here, I wasn’t all hoo-rah, hoo-rah. I stayed humble. I knew I had to earn the respect from the other guys before I could start speaking.
“I’m definitely a social guy, like to have fun. I don’t want to come in being an uptight graduate. I want us to have fun together. I want us to compete together and create that brotherhood. Whether it takes a month, two months, at some point we have to form that chemistry so we can go out and win a Big Ten championship.”