Akeem Spence Brings Strength To D-Line

A number of Fighting Illini football players have played the first games of their careers this season including six true freshmen. Among several redshirt freshmen, Akeem Spence is a starter at defensive tackle alongside Corey Liuget. Spence already holds the UI Power Clean record and is using that strength to advantage on the field this fall.

Akeem Spence has made a big early impression for the Illinois football team, especially in the weight room. The redshirt freshman already holds a record for the Power Clean.

"I broke the Clean record at 377. Coach Lou (Hernandez) is always there to push me. Every lift I make, he's making sure I make my weights. I need to show these guys on the team I'm here. Then I try to take what I do in the weight room to the field. That's my mentality."

The 6'-1", 305 pounder started his first college game against Missouri and now has four games under his belt. He had possibly his best game against Ohio State as he was credited with 7 tackles while clogging the middle.

"It feels great. Right now I'm just trying to learn how to be a starter. Play hard every play and try to be a leader on this team. Sometimes I struggle because I'm young or whatever, but I'm trying to push through that."

He describes his progression through the first third of the season.

"The first couple games I was still trying to find my niche. The Missouri game was my first game. It was the first time I'd played in a dome. The speed was incredible. But after the first two series I was good. Last week was the biggest game I've ever played in my life. I played my heart out, gave it everything I had. It's tough to lose."

His perspective has changed from the start of the season. He's no longer just a minor cog in a big wheel.

"Yeah, it's real different. Guys now look up to me. Sometimes they look to me to make plays. They expect me to be in my gap, run to the ball and do everything I'm supposed to do. That's what I'm trying to do."

The success he had against the Buckeyes gives him confidence for the future.

"They were good guys, but I just played my technique with good pad level. Those guys were the best I've seen all year. I felt like I played pretty well for most of the game. I look forward to having that same success and become one of the top defensive linemen in the country."

Spence valued his time sitting out as a true freshman last year. It gave him time to learn the nuances of defensive tackle.

"I'm just taking advantage of the opportunity Coach (Keith) Gilmore and Coach (Ron) Zook have given me. We put in a lot of defensive work this summer. Corey (Liuget) is helping me out a lot with my steps, my hands, everything. He's trying to get me ready to play next to him so I can help him out."

The Fort Walton Beach, Florida, athlete is basically a run-stopping nose guard for the Illini. He wants to become an all-around player.

"I'm a great run stopper, but I'm working on my pass rush a lot. I'm not that tall, I don't got long arms. I'm working on guys like (Randall) Hunt with the long arms, trying to get them off me. So my pass rush is my main focus. The run I've got down, it's just the pass."

The defensive linemen worked hard together all summer, improving their games and creating togetherness.

"I say the summer was great. Most of the defensive linemen lifted in the first 7:00 o'clock lift. We were out there to push one another, make sure we get through it. If one of us was struggling, we were there to pick him up. The summer was great for the defensive line."

Defensive line coach Gilmore has made a positive impression on his young protégé.

"Coach Gilmore is a great guy. He tells you what you need to learn. Where I come from, the coach says something and you try to live up to that expectation. He tells me guys like me can get to the NFL. Next year Corey might not be here, so he's looking at me to be the next leader. I'm trying to live up to that right now."

He feels the same about Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning.

"I like hard work. It's hard on my bod, but I like it because he expects us to be great. He tells us every day how great we can be. But we've got to put in the work to be great. That's what I like about Coach Vic. He told us from Day 1 we can be great, so we come out here and pick things up fast."

The Illini have a 2-2 record with strong Penn State and Michigan State teams on the immediate horizon. But Spence and his teammates are excited to prove themselves to their Big 10 brethren.

"The defense knows we can play anybody. We played our best but made a few mistakes. We need to get those corrected and be on top of our game at all times. We can't make silly mistakes, we can't make stupid penalties, just be on at all times.

"We feel great about the season. Right now, every team is looking down on us. We like that. We're gonna be a big surprise this year. I feel good about the season."

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