Illinois junior defensive tackle Corey Liuget made tremendous improvement since last year. He was rewarded for his play by being named second team All-Big 10 recently. He is pleased with the honor but has ambitions beyond that.
"It feels good to make second team All-Big 10, but it's not first. That's what I was aiming for during the season. But I made progress between last season and this season, so I feel great. I'm gonna keep working for 1st team All-Big 10."
The Illini defense struggled late in the season against Michigan and Minnesota but righted itself against Northwestern. Liuget was asked the difference.
"We came out with our butts on fire. We were just flying around trying to get to the quarterback. We played relentless."
Liuget is a leader on the defense, and his passion rubbed off on his teammates. His improvement coincides with understanding the importance of competing at a peak emotional level.
"I think it is something I learned to do this year. I just felt more comfortable with myself. I was making plays, and the whole defense was going out as a team and playing with enthusiasm.
"Just coming to work every day. On any given day, anyone can be beaten. From last year to this year we just learned to give our all and leave it all out there."
Does he still have more to learn?
"Of course. Technique, and always stay poised, even when things go bad. You can't think about the last play, you've got to be ready for the next play and perform on that play."
A big factor in Liuget's success was losing 30 pounds after last season. He says all the sacrifices he made were worth it.
"It definitely was. The long days of working hard, going to the sauna, doing double the running of what everybody else was doing. It definitely helped me as a football player, getting in shape, everything."
Will it be a problem keeping the weight off?
"I don't think I'll have to go through that again. I'll get a lot stronger, and I'll be able to maintain it."
The Miami product is pleased but not satisfied. While most Illini fans brag the defense exceeded expectations, he says more is possible.
"Maybe to the media and everybody we might have exceeded expectations. But we've got a lot more to prove and achieve this season. And we've got an off season to look forward to, getting ready for next year."
While some fear losing him to the upcoming NFL draft, Liuget talks like a man who is intent on completing his football and academics at Illinois first. He has high hopes for next season.
"Yes definitely. It's definitely gonna be a goal to get to a better bowl game. BCS bowl is what we're gonna strive for. I want to make it my business to get to one while I'm here as a highlight of my career. That's definitely one of the challenges we're gonna look forward to."