Hugh Thornton plays a major role on the Illinois offense. The sophomore guard, who started at tackle as a true freshman, gave everyone a scare when he was removed from the field. Fortunately it was just a neck strain, a problem that had bothered him in a less extreme way earlier in the year.
"Yeah, just a little in Camp Rantoul and before the season. And I had some problem before the spring."
He hasn't missed a single game. How does he feel now?
"My neck is feeling 200% better. We have some of the best trainers here, and I have been getting treatment. They're helping me out during rehab to get it back to where it was before."
What was he thinking while being treated on the field after the injury?
"I was a little concerned, but I knew I was gonna be all right. I could move all my limbs; it was just precautionary."
Since then, he has continued to be the versatile performer the Illini need on the offensive line. He rotates with Jack Cornell and Randall Hunt at the two guard spots, and he provides temporary relief at tackle as well.
"With depth and everything...I played tackle last year, so they wanted to give me a few reps. But that's been going good. And at guard, I've been improving on technique. I come out here and hustle and go 110% every play.
"I think I retain a few things from last year, technique and assignment-wise. It's definitely different playing guard with the technique and all the different plays we run. But it isn't difficult to make the transition from one position to the other."
After a summer of bonding, the offensive line began to work together as a unit.
"The offensive line is coming together, and I think the whole team is coming together and forgetting about last season. With new coaches, it's kind of a new era.
"We've really bought into the goal of team bonding, and everybody's been stepping up to the plate. All it takes is everybody buying in. I think by the end of the season we'll be a championship line.
"The chemistry is there. We just have some more things to work on before we come together and show our real potential."
The 6'-5", 310 pounder feels there is a new attitude this year that helps the team play better. It helps to be hungry for success after two down years. And there is no longer a target on their backs.
"That's 100% true. I think it makes a huge difference. When you think you're good, there's a lot more pressure on you. You've got to come out every day ready to work. You're definitely more motivated when you're hungry."
The linemen have had good moments and bad moments against a difficult schedule, especially the last three opponents Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State. They have learned on the job and continue to get better. There is good reason to continue the fight the rest of the year.
"We're coming out here and getting better; there's always room to improve. Those were three good teams, and I'm sure there are a lot of other great teams we're gonna have to prepare for and keep our bodies healthy for."
Thornton is pleased with line coach Joe Gilbert and the changes made in the offense by coordinator Paul Petrino.
"Coach Gilbert is a good coach. He likes to stress technique, getting the job done right versus doing it 100% wrong. He has a lot of one-on-one coaching strategies that help each position out from the centers to the tackles.
"I'm definitely really excited. The schemes are pretty incredible. I'm definitely learning a lot more about offense and how to work it against different defenses. This year is gonna be a new and improved Fighting Illini."
Thornton has made a positive impression in his first two seasons. And he has earned the respect of his teammates. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase speaks for the whole team regarding Thornton's value and the hard work he put in recovering from his injury.
"He's got a fighter's mentality. Everyone in the offensive room knows the fight that he brings every day. He's a guy that works hard for us. He wasn't gonna let anything hold him out. He's doing everything he can to help us out. That's the type of spirit everyone has to bring to the table."