Brandon Denmark was a highly rated outside linebacker at James Rickards High School in Jacksonville, Florida, last year. He has been moved to the Bandit position for Illinois, and his athleticism has allowed him a chance to play as a freshman. He is happy with his progress so far.
"It feels pretty good. Everybody doesn't get the opportunity to come out and be part of a D-1 travel team, so I think it's a blessing. I'm looking forward to it and am really excited about being out there."
Of course, playing time was a goal of his, and he has earned it with hard work.
"Yes sir. The coaches believed in me. They believe I'm mature enough to handle myself out on the field coming into the faster game of college."
It didn't take long for Denmark to get over his nervousness during the Missouri game.
"The first kickoff against Missouri, I was kind of nervous. But then I tried to think about positive things like me being on TV, people in my hometown being able to watch me. I wasn't really that nervous, I just had to get adjusted to the speed. Once I had that, it was pretty much go from there."
The 6'-3", 225 pounder contributes on two special teams for the Illini.
"I'm on the kickoff team and punt return. I'm on the outside, and I use my speed to contribute to that part."
Even special teams are more complicated than high school.
"I'm starting to get more comfortable, more mature. In high school we didn't have to run schemes. We just had to run up the field. But now I've got to know what my team's trying to do."
Outside linebacker coach Ron West says Denmark is a work in progress as a Bandit. The position requires the ability to rush the passer like a defensive end while also being able to drop back in pass coverage. Denmark has seen mop-up action at the position so far, but he will see more time there once he becomes comfortable with the position.
"He's learning," West states. "Everything's the first time for him, so he's learning a little bit at a time. He seems to improve in one area, and then something else happens. He's getting better, and what he's able to do right now is contribute on special teams. And on certain packages we do, he has a better understanding of them. Maybe he can participate in those packages."
Denmark admits his responsibilities at Bandit are different than his role in high school.
"Yes sir. I played SAM. It's not really much of a difference, I've just got to stop and read. See what they're doing so I can make a play for my team. In high school, I was just able to go."
A major change for him is learning to put his hand on the ground and rush the passer from the edge.
"Yeah, I had to get used to that. But I think my stance got way better than what it was. I was used to just standing up. We were a long time working on coming out of my stance. I'm getting better and better every day because I know my teammates depend on me and I depend on them. So I just keep on learning."
Does he have problems getting past 300 pound offensive tackles when rushing the passer?
"Not really. I think my speed helps. My speed is one of my strong points, so it helps me out when it comes to the tackles. Most of the time, by the time they're dropping back I'm ready to make a play."
That said, Denmark does realize improvements can be made.
"Using my hands more so I can have a little bit more of an advantage coming off the edge. That's probably something I didn't really do in high school either."
Denmark believes he is strong enough for the position, but a couple years in the weight room under the tutelage of Strength and Conditioning coach Lou Hernandez will make him more effective. He hopes to grow into the 235-240 range.
West sums up his prize pupil.
"He's got real good speed. He's got to get stronger and learn to play down. His speed is the asset that gives him a great chance at that spot."