Illinois began the 2010 season with a large and talented receiver corps. Due to injuries in the secondary, two second teamers moved to defense. This allowed a chance for four freshmen to compete for playing time.
Darius Millines was the first rookie to see the field, followed closely by Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris. Along with fellow freshman Anthony Williams, who made big strides with the scout team, these three made contributions to a bowl winning team and have tremendous promise for the future.
The three lettermen spoke about their first seasons and hopes for the future. They were asked about their progress as freshmen.
"I thought we progressed really well," Harris stated. "I came in real rusty on a lot of things, and Coach (Paul) Petrino cleaned up all our routes and catching the ball. As a group and individually, we improved greatly. And there's still a lot we can get better at."
Harris had four receptions on the year for 48 yards, scoring a touchdown on a 17 yard completion. Lankford had the best statistics, grabbing 6 balls for 129 yards including a 52 yard touchdown reception and a two point conversion. He agrees with Harris.
"We all stay after practice, working on our hands as far as getting db's hands off and catching balls. It's been a great year. We didn't have as many receptions or touchdowns as everybody else, but we still got better."
Millines got the most minutes among the three. He had two receptions with two for 42 yards including a brilliant leaping catch for 32 yards in the Texas Bowl against Baylor. He also saw progress.
"We didn't have many balls thrown our way, but still all of us were working hard. We just keep progressing and getting better."
The transition to college is difficult for all freshmen. Each of the three receivers struggled at times with it.
"It's a big transition," Harris admits. "You're on your own when you get to college. Back home I was THE receiver. But here it's not the same; you're competing every day for your job. If you don't do your job, you're not gonna play.
"The biggest transition for me was having to work hard every day. There's no day I can slack off and take a day off. That's one of the biggest things for me. And mentally. My hardest class is football. It's a big transition."
The new level of athleticism was a factor for Millines.
"The biggest transition for me was how much stronger and faster everyone was. Things are moving much faster than I was used to. And then all the school work and having study hall after practice and everything, that was a big part.
"It was a big transition from not having much work in high school and not high intensity practice to having to do a lot of work for classes and then having to perform on the football field every day in practice."
Lankford came from a small high school. There was much to learn.
"I'd have to say technique. I didn't really realize that technique was so crucial. In high school I just lined up and ran as fast as I could. Here you have db's that are twice my size. If they get their hands on me, I'm not going anywhere.
"So I have to use my technique, my footwork, my hands and everything to make a play. Technique has helped me get better on the football field. Getting stronger will help also."
Receivers are often considered the pretty boys of football. Playing far away from all the commotion along the line of scrimmage, they take fewer hits so their faces show fewer signs of football's violent nature. They get the ladies and appear in advertisements. Some fans think catching passes and scoring touchdowns is all they do.
In reality, receivers play an important role in the running game, especially at Illinois. Downfield blocking allows running backs and quarterbacks to gain more yardage. All three accepted their dual roles and took pride in helping Mikel Leshoure break Illini single season rushing records. Harris says receiver coach Paul Petrino demands solid blocking.
"It's a team effort. We're not just throwing the ball all the time. Coach Petrino expects big things; if you don't block, you don't play. You have to block good. It's also good that when we're not running routes, we're blocking for the running back. He knows that as well."
Millines was taught to value blocking at an early age.
"Coming up in little league football and high school football, my coach always put in my head if I don't block I'm not getting the ball. I just keep fighting, fighting, fighting and blocking to help the running back make a play. And when the ball comes my way, I have to make a play. I like the glory of passes, but it's a team thing."
Lankford is the most slender of the three. An off season of work in the weight room will improve his blocking. He doesn't mind serving an anonymous role.
"Our time will come. We're freshmen, so we've got 3-4 more years of this. We'll be making the big catches and big plays, and our faces will be on t-shirts and posters."
In part two, the three amigos talk about what they need to improve and the bright promise that shines on the Illinois offense for future seasons.