Illinois offensive coordinator and receiver coach Paul Petrino puts the receiver corps through its paces in practice, with the best men seeing the most action on game day. Spencer Harris spoke for fellow freshmen Darius Millines and Ryan Lankford when describing what it takes to earn playing time.
"He tells us all the time that if you can't execute a play, he's not gonna put it in the game plan. So if you're not executing on the practice field, he's not gonna play you on the game field. You earn your balls in practice."
It is a tough transition from being a star in high school to being just another cog in a wheel as a college freshman. Harris, from Greenwood, Arkansas, tried not to let it bother him.
"Sometimes it is a little discouraging, but you can't really look at it like that. It messes with your mind sometimes, especially since you're used to getting the ball in high school. It can be discouraging, but you've got to fight for yourself to overcome that.
"In college, you really can't be a selfish player. At all. You've got to realize that everyone across from you is just as good as you are or even better."
Darius Millines, the leading receiver for American Heritage High School in Boynton Beach, Florida, missed an early opportunity. It affected him for awhile afterward.
"It was difficult for me because I wasn't used to the game speed. I let one pass get to me. I dropped it."
Lankford, the do-everything athlete from Paxon High School in Jacksonville, Florida, has a mature approach despite his youth.
"This is how I look at it. I'm not getting every pass. We're freshmen. What we have to do is in practice, we have to be prepare for times to come. If you do that, when the time comes you'll be ready. More balls will come next year, more balls will come our junior and senior years. You've got to be ready."
All three have aspects of their game they wish to improve.
"My hands," Lankford states emphatically. "Looking the ball all the way in. Just confidence. Not really having to think about anything. Let second nature take over."
Millines believes he can catch more long passes through repetition. He wants to improve all aspects of his game.
"I want to work on my deep balls. Coach says keep your shoulder square and look for the ball with your chin. And I want to work on my hands and route running. Getting my blocking down pat."
Harris recognizes the importance of being aware on the field.
"I'd like to be more mentally smart. I'd like to be able to read coverage. I'd like to know what the linebackers are doing exactly, and the safeties. Know exactly their weaknesses on every play."
At the time of the interview, the Illini were preparing for a Texas Bowl date with Baylor. They won in convincing fashion, but a loss would have given them a losing season at 6-7. None were worried about that possibility.
"I don't think leaving the practice field and going into this Baylor game we're worried about having a losing season. I think we're just worried about what's on our plate."
Millines is a tough competitor who wanted to win every game.
"I don't like to lose at nothing. It's like a pet peeve with me. It gets on my nerves. In all my years of playing football, I never lost 6 games in one year. We always made the playoffs."
Harris wants to see the Illini duplicate the success his Greenwood High School teams enjoyed.
"I came from a winning program. We went to state my sophomore year. I wasn't used to losing at all, so after losing a couple games, it kind of sucked. You struggle with losing, but we're not worried about it. We're just going to do our thing. A win would definitely be good for us going into the off season. It would be great going into winter workouts with a win. It's a boost."
The big victory over Baylor was just what the doctor ordered for the Illini. But even before that triumph, the three receivers had high hopes for the rest of their Illini careers.
"That's definitely something exciting," Harris reminds. "Looking this year, especially how young we are, we used five freshmen. There were two or more freshmen on the field at one time. It really excited me because here we are in the Texas Bowl, and we're really young.
"Next year we're gonna be more experienced. The biggest thing is knowing the play book, knowing what's going on. So I think people will be surprised with what we do next year."
"We want to be a great team," Millines states emphatically. "All the guys are coming together more and more each week. It's just a matter of believing we're gonna be a great team.
"I think more and more people day in and day out are starting to believe that we're gonna be a great team. And then that's all on us. We have to transfer that to the spring and into the season. I'm excited about next year."
"It's gonna be great," Lankford agrees. "There's gonna be football in December for years to come. Make a January bowl."
If these young Illini have anything to say about it, the Illinois offense could be dominant for years to come. Add Chesapeake, Virginia, redshirt classmate Anthony Williams to the mix, and the Illini have the makings of an outstanding receiver corps for the foreseeable future.