Former QB Playing Important Role For UI

The Fighting Illini football team has always been known for giving walk-ons a chance to compete for playing time. So it is no surprise that several have seen action this year. But when you walk on to play quarterback, you don't expect to play a significant role as a tight end. Eddie Viliunas has enjoyed that unique opportunity.

Redshirt sophomore Eddie Viliunas came to Illinois without benefit of a scholarship and tried out as a quarterback. After all, that was his position at Lyons Township High School.

"I only played quarterback. I was actually one of the top quarterbacks coming out of the state of Illinois. We didn't go too far in the playoffs; everything kind of fell short. We ran the option in high school, so we didn't throw the ball too much.

"I also played basketball and baseball. I was also real good at them and concentrated on all three sports. I was All-Conference in all three, and All-Area. It was a good feeling."

The Communications major had other opportunities to pursue football after high school, but he knew what he wanted.

"It was always my dream school to come here. I could have gone to a couple other smaller schools like Division 1-AA's. But I always wanted to play in the Big 10, and I've always thought I had the ability to play in the Big 10. So I thought I'd come to a great school and play football.

"I've always had people tell me, 'You'll never do that, you'll never do this.' I've always had it in my mind I could do something like this. I'd never come out here thinking I'd never get an opportunity to play. I had an opportunity, and I seized it and built off it."

Buried deep in the quarterback depth chart, Viliunas was encouraged to try tight end and jumped at the chance.

"I never really expected to play tight end. It's always kind of been in the back of my mind, to do what best can help the team. I was 6'-4", 220 pounds in high school, and my coach said that in college if I filled out a little bit they might move me to tight end or defensive end, whatever was best suited for me. I kind of like the position. It's really grown on me."

Actually, it took a change in coaching staffs to keep him there this spring.

"I was thinking about moving back to quarterback this past off season. I was kind of working there a little bit. And then when Coach (Greg) Nord came here, he said he would work with me a little bit. Get me back to tight end and go over some of the fundamentals.

"I worked with him a little bit, and then when he left Coach (Chip) Long continued to work with me. Ever since then I've kind of adjusted to it and kept playing my way through it. I watched film and stuff like that."

Viliunas expects to become a little bigger and stronger over time.

"Considering I was thinking of playing quarterback, I was actually trying to lose a little weight. I could add a little more weight and be 250-255. But 245 is great for me right now."

When Zach Becker suffered recurring stress fractures in his feet, Viliunas got his chance as a second tight end in blocking formations. It is a thrill of a lifetime.

"It feels awesome. It's a great feeling to get out there in front of all these people and play against teams I've grown up watching. It's just real cool to get out there and play, block for Mikel Leshoure and get him some yards. It's a real cool feeling."

He has played in all ten games this season, including the Missouri game in St. Louis. He will never forget his first snaps.

"It was kind of sweet because it was my first time traveling, and I was in a dome. It was sweet playing in a professional stadium. The third play of the game, they called the personnel for me to go out there so I said, 'Wow, it's happening pretty quick.'

"I got some more plays on that first drive. We ended up stalling a little bit, but we ended up scoring a field goal and getting some points. So it was kind of a cool feeling knowing I could help the team."

Viliunas has been used exclusively in the run game up to now, but he is convinced he can help the passing game also.

"They haven't really thrown me the ball, but my thing right now is more blocking. I have the ability to catch the ball if they need me to, and I'm athletic enough to make some moves if I do catch it. We'll see what happens if they throw me the ball, but it's whatever I can do to help the team."

Viliunas comes from an athletic family. Younger sister Alexis is an All-State volleyball player already committed to Illinois.

"My sister is a junior right now, but she's one of the top volleyball players in the state as well as in the nation. She's coming here the year after next, and she'll be a setter for the UI."

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