College Sports

Could McKendree’s record-setting linebacker have an NFL future?

A.J. Wentland became the McKendree Bearcats’ all-time leading tackler last week.
A.J. Wentland became the McKendree Bearcats’ all-time leading tackler last week. Courtesy McKendree University

McKendree University senior linebacker A.J. Wentland knows that he will leave his mark on the Bearcats football program and his name in the Great Lakes Valley Conference record book.

Following his performance in the Bearcats’ 16-15 double-overtime win over West Liberty University last week, Wentland was awarded his fifth career GLVC Defensive Player of the Week honor. His 16 tackles elevated the former Machesney Park-Harlem High School standout past Brandon Nigro for the top spot on the Bearcats’ career tackles list.

Wentland now has 306 career stops. Nigro had 295 tackles for McKendree during the 2008-11 seasons.

But personal accolades and the possibility of making an NFL team roster in the near future aren’t what is motivating Wentland in his final year as a Bearcat. He and the rest of an experienced defensive unit is after a GLVC title and playoff berth.

“Ever since I got here that’s been the goal — to win a conference championship, get into the playoffs and show that nation that this is one of the best (NCAA) Division II programs around,” Wentland said. “We’ve worked hard all Summer and for us this seniors this is it. Is this the best McKendree team that I’ve been on? We’ll have to wait until the end of the season to answer that one. But I do know that it’s right up there.”

The 6-2 240-pound Wentland is a two-time all-GLVC performer. He spent the summer working for the Fairview Heights Park District and working out with his teammates.

That and the fact that he is in his third season as a starter, has made him a better football player.

“I just think the fact that I’ve played a lot football at Mckendree and I’ve learned a lot has helped me have the ability to slow down the game a little bit when it comes to making my reads and my progressions,’’ Wentland said. “I can kind of sense where the ball is going and in a way slowing the game down has helped me play faster.’’

McKeendree coach Mike Babcock, a former NCAA Division I player who has played with and against many former NFL players, has seen Wentland mature and become one of the top linebackers in the nation during his time as a Bearcat.

“A.J. has had a great career and is off to a great start to his senior year. My goodness, 16 tackles in one game. I can’t imagine getting eight in one game, let alone twice that many,” Babcock said. “He’s a coaches player, Everything you ask of him, its either ‘yes sir’ or ‘no sir.’ If I told him that running through a wall would help this football team win, he would be the first to do it.

“He’s been an all-conference player twice and he could be an All-American this year, but those things are secondary to him. The kid is a winner. Plain and simple, he wants to help this football team win games.”

Babcock believes that the chance for Wentland to play in the NFL in the future will be there when he graduates from McKendree next spring. Wentland, who will have a degree in exercise science when he leaves Lebanon, said he would love the chance to play on Sunday afternoons.

“Sure I would. It’s the dream of everybody who ever puts on a football jersey and helmet. Playing in the NFL is something I aspire to do,” Wentland said. “But all I can do is keep working hard. I believe that good things happen to people to do the right things and work hard.”

McKendree is 2-0 heading into its first road game of the season at Drake University on Saturday. The Bearcats open GLVC play on Sept. 24 when they host William Jewell University at Leemon Field.

In a 33-19 season opening game win over Angelo State, the Bearcats defense combined with its special teams to force six turnovers. Last week against West Liberty, the defense allowed six points in four quarters as McKendree improved to 2-0 for the season.

“That’s kind of what I put on my shoulders. To help lead this defense,” Wentland said. “We’ve got quite a few players who have been here for two and three years and have played a lot of football. I feel like we’ve really improved as a defense. And by doing that it’s kind of motivated the offense to do the same. When in practice, the defense is flying around, the offense has had to improve to keep up.’’

Wentland said that that he’s in the best shape of his life heading into the third game of his senior year at McKendree, a place he has grown to love.

“I feel great. The conditioning coaches have done a tremendous job of getting us in shape. I’m 21 and I’m bigger, stronger and faster than I’ve ever been before,” Wentland said. “It’s hard to believe I’m a senior in college. I didn’t get the chance to red-shirt and so the time has just gone by so fast. It’s amazing. It’s been a great experience for me to attend McKendree University. I’ve learned many of life’s lessons here.”

MCKENDREE AT DRAKE

Time: 1 p.m.

MCKENDREE (2-0)

Coach: Mike Babcock (4th Year, 19-14)

Last Week: Won over West Liberty University 16-15 in 2OT

Offensive Leaders: RB Shayeen Edwards (66 carries, 209 yards, 1TD); QB: Elcee Burke (20-37 for 204 yards, 2TD”s); WR: Sean Dowling, (10 receptions for 93 yards, 1TD

Defensive Leaders: LB: AJ Wentland (30 tackles, 19 solos); DT: Lucky Baar (16 tackles, 12 solos, 2 QB sacks); LB: Kyle Kirkpatrick (15 tackles, 11 solos, 1 QB sack)

Next Week: Will host William Jewell University

DRAKE (0-2)

Coach: Rick Fox (3rd Year, 12-12)

Last Week: Lost to South Dakota State 56-28

Offensive Leaders: RB: Conley Wilkins (36 carries for 140 yards, 1TD); QB: Cody Thibault (26 for 41 for 370 yards, 3TD’s); TE: Eric Saubert (13 catches for 140 yards, 2TD’s)

Defensive Leaders: S: Jabari Butler (18 tackles, 14 solos); LB: Taylor Coleman (17 tackles, 7 solos, 3 Int.); LB: Tommy Petta (10 tackles, 10 solos, 3 QB sacks)

Next Week: Will host Morehead State

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