Craig Wilson first announced to attend Illinois after a good career as an offensive lineman at Thornton of Harvey. He needed a year at prep school before enrollment at the UI but impressed as an offensive tackle there. He has since labored four years with only a small role on special teams to his credit.
Thanks to the early departure of defensive tackle Corey Liuget, Wilson was asked to move to defense. He jumped at the chance and now has a new lease on life. Illinois coach Ron Zook considered the move earlier in Wilson's career.
"I wanted to make the move last fall, and the offensive coaches talked me out of it. Craig's a big guy, he's a physical guy, he's an athletic guy. When you look at a guy like him, he's like those guys that play on Sunday. I think Craig can help us there.
"I told Craig, 'We're not moving you over there to be a backup. We're moving you there to play. He was real excited about it, and the defensive guys were excited about it. He's got a long way to go as we all do, but he's gonna be okay."
Wilson has always been considered an offensive lineman. At 6'-5", 320 pounds, he looks the part. He says he has minimal experience as a defender.
"Last time I played d-line was my senior year in high school. I started playing defense in the middle of the season. That was like two or three games. That was awhile ago."
He has a long way to go before he can contribute consistently to the Illini defense. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and he's looking forward to finding out where it leads.
"It feels really good. I'm pretty excited about this year. I can't wait for the season to start. I feel like I will really get some playing time this year. I'm looking forward to it.
"I've been working tremendously hard. I've talked to some of the old guys. I talked to Xavier Fulton. I talked to a lot of defensive guys on how I can improve my game. They tell me what I'm doing wrong."
Wilson has amazing flexibility for his size. He can do one-handed cartwheels and was a big hit at the Texas Bowl Rodeo that preceded the bowl game. He can spread his legs and lean forward until his head touches the ground. Few athletes of any size can do that.
"He's a big body and can make some things happen," an amazed Zook brags. "He's very athletic, he's got some athleticism, he's flexible. He's probably the most flexible guy on our whole football team, even the small guys. It's unbelievable. And he's a great guy that works extremely hard. I think he deserves an opportunity to do it."
The task of molding Wilson into a defensive lineman falls to coach Keith Gilmore. Like a sculptor, he is assigned the task of cutting away the dross to find the perfected defensive tackle hidden inside. Previous sculptors have tried to find an offensive lineman in there, to no avail. Perhaps they were looking for the wrong things.
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning explains what must be done.
"He's a big body. I told Coach Gilmore that last year he had a freshman All-American (Akeem Spence), and he had a guy that's gonna be a high draft pick (Liuget). If anybody can get him to be up to speed, he can. He's used to coaching all those good players. We've got to get him up to that same speed."
Wilson is completing his fourth year on campus, but the time has flown by. He was a backup to Fulton on the 2007 Rose Bowl team, and Fulton groomed him to be his replacement. It never happened.
"It seems like just yesterday. I remember coming through those doors, not knowing what my future was going to be here. Seeing a lot of guys like X, the older guys gone and I say, 'Wow!' It seems like when I go into the locker room I can almost still hear them even though they're not there. It's pretty funny actually."
He misses Fulton especially.
"Ever since I got here, he was my big brother. I kind of feel like I let him down. He kept my head up, telling me to keep striving to work harder."
He has continued to work at the game he loves. He now has a chance to see his dreams fulfilled.
"Ever since I came here, I wanted to be a starter. Something always postponed it. I still want to be a starter. I see all the skilled guys around me, and I try to copy that so I can get my speed up as well."
Defensive line requires less attention to detail and more aggressiveness. Wilson explains the thing he needs to work on the most to be a good d-lineman.
"Just having that fire. It's basically the same as offense, but more emotion. It's not just focus on your assignment, it's make a play. It's like get to your gap, but if the guy happens to go to the other side, go to the ball."
How does he think the Illini defense will do this year?
"I kind of wish Corey was still here, but I think we're gonna be okay. We've got a lot of guys that have got to step up and fill his shoes a little bit. But I think overall we'll be all right."
He is certainly one of those guys, perhaps the most important one. If he can finally realize his potential, his future in football might not be over. If nothing else, he can enjoy his final season as an Illini.
"I feel like I'm more flexible when I'm out there. I'm having fun; I'm a little kid again."