Troy Pollard was being used effectively in the Illinois offense his freshman year in 2007 before he tore his ACL in his knee. While he was able to practice in 2008, he didn't have the speed and maneuverability needed for the running back position. He also had ankle problems. Last year he was improved, but he played behind two established veterans and saw little action.
He is still third string, but Pollard saw significant action against Penn State and flashed the ability fans remember from three years ago. He gained 55 yards in 8 carries, gaining 20 yards on one carry. It was a big relief for the likeable redshirt junior.
"I felt pretty good out there. The line was making big holes for me. It felt good to be running with the team again, helping the team out the best I can. I feel I'm a good team player, so I'm glad I finally had a chance to help out."
Most players return to action within a year after ACL surgery, but regaining all the strength and maneuverability lost from the injury often takes much longer. Pollard thought he was close to 100% in 2009, but this year is even better.
"I thank God every day my knee's feeling good, my ankle's feeling good. This is the best I've felt since I had ACL surgery."
Even his excitement about the Penn State victory reflected more his love for his head coach rather than his individual and team accomplishments.
"Oh yeah it felt good, especially for Coach Zook. How much he does for us and cares for us, it feels even better winning for him."
What does the Jacksonville, Florida, product think is the reason the Illini offense is playing better this year?
"We're still doing some of the spread and option stuff, but we're a more physical team. We're running the ball downhill, getting to the linebackers fast, and we're more physical.
"We're taking on the coaches' personality, tough and physical. The offense is looking pretty good this year because we're letting the coaches coach and buying in.
"It's way more intense than last year. We've been working harder, the coaches have been pushing us harder, even when you think you can't go any harder. We can always get better. We're gonna keep working it hard to get where we need to be.
"Coach P (Paul Petrino) is a great coach with a lot of intensity. He wants perfection and preaches perfection. He'll make sure he'll push you whether you're a starter or a third stringer."
Pollard is also learning from new running back coach DeAndre Smith.
"Coach Smith teaches us to run hard and keep the ball high and tight. He's there for us mentally and emotionally. He just talks to us instead of yelling at us and makes us better."
Four running backs compete daily for playing time. Pollard knows that pushes him to improve.
"Each of us knows that everyone is good because we're pushing each other. We know that any day we can't mess up because the next guy behind us is just as good."
The 5'-9", 190 pounder has more wiggle, more ability to make people miss with quick directional changes, than his fellow running backs. So perhaps it is a little surprising to see him return kicks. That requires an opposite approach.
"On kick returns, you've got to hit it in there. You see a hole and you've got to hit it real fast. It's kind of different because I like to make moves. I'm adjusting to that a little bit."
"You've heard me say this a lot of times, if you look at places that have a couple good backs, you look at Penn State, you look at Michigan State, the more guys that can run the ball and keep those other guys fresh is good. Troy does some good things, he does some things that maybe other guys can't do. It's good having that change of pace."
Pollard loves to play, but he is the consummate team player.
"I hope to get more carries, but I'm not a selfish player. I don't care if I get the ball. If we win, I'm happy. So long as we win, I'm all right."