Coach Lou Hernandez has seen tremendous improvement by Illinois football players in his Strength and Conditioning program. Illini offensive players were discussed earlier, but defenders are benefitting as well.
Redshirt freshmen tackles Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe needed to gain strength and weight after playing other positions in high school. Teitsma is working hard to build his weight up, although that is more difficult for him than some according to Hernandez.
"Austin's weight was 250 when he first got here. He put on about 10 pounds during the season, and right now he's close to 270. He's a little heavier now, and I'm gonna continue to do it depending on how much his body can hold and still be able to move.
"He's one of those guys it's easier for him to drop weight than to put weight on. So I'm gonna continue to try to get him up. He's one of those kids that's got that great metabolism where he can eat and eat and eat and not worry about body fat. We've just got to keep flooding him with calories."
Howe has no such concerns. A high school defensive end recruited originally to play fullback, he now looks like a defensive tackle.
"Jake Howe is a guy, as a redshirt freshman he's put on about 30 pounds. He's lifting some big numbers and trying to follow along with Akeem Spence, learn from him on what it takes to be successful. He's definitely doing some really good things."
New defensive end starter Whitney Mercilus now looks the part after arriving at Illinois too slender for the position.
"Whitney Mercilus is really standing out. He's also gained 10 pounds and is close to 270 right now. He's handling that weight really well and pushing his young d-linemen along."
Spence's progress has already been documented. Hernandez has trouble naming defensive linemen for special praise, for a good reason.
"The entire line is doing great. It's hard to single out just one guy because a lot of guys have good goals that they're accomplishing. They're all being very successful at it."
Senior middle linebacker Ian Thomas has been a weight room leader throughout his career.
"Ian Thomas is usually the strongest guy in this weight room. He has a 475 bench press and usually weighs 230 pounds. He's coming back from a little bit of an injury, but he still shows up down here every day to get his guys going.
"Hopefully he'll be full go in the summer and do everything he needs to do to get his numbers back and impress everybody with the things that he does."
Jonathan Brown played well in a reserve role at weakside linebacker as a freshman despite reporting too heavy.
"Jonathan Brown came in at 240. Most importantly, he was at 20% body fat. When you're looking at a guy who's a big skill guy, 20% body fat is way too high.
"So during the summer time, he probably lost about 10 pounds. Most importantly, his body fat got down to about 11%. During the season, he kept his weight around 230, and his body fat continued to drop.
"It's now down to 9%. He's getting better and better. He's getting to the point where he's lost the bad stuff, and now we'll see if we can put on some good stuff for him."
Bandit Michael Buchanan is tall and slender and puts on weight slowly. He's getting there.
"Mike Buchanan is moving in the right direction, putting on the weigh that he needs, pushing some big numbers. He's up to 235 right now."
The starting SAM linebacker has also made major strides over the winter.
"Ashante Williams has been really focused, working hard, lifting well, running better than I've ever seen him run. He's doing a great job."
Team leadership often evolves first in the weight room. Hernandez has seen some defensive backs serve important team roles during workouts.
"Trulon Henry's maturity is great for that particular group. He's a natural leader, not only by example but also by being vocal. He's real in tune with his body, does the extra things. He's a big-lifting guy, he does extra things when it comes to skills and drills and speed. He does a great job with his body.
"Tavon Wilson is being a great leader as well, not just with the defense but as an overall guy. He'll come over to the offense and try to get them up and going as well."
Hernandez offered special praise to a couple other defensive backs.
"Pat Nixon-Youman has put on about 10 pounds like we wanted him to do, and he's definitely holding that weight and pushing some really good weight. Terry Hawthorne is doing a great job."
Strength coaches at some schools come and go. But Hernandez and Illinois head coach Ron Zook have been together going on 10 years. Hernandez explains why.
"The biggest thing, our philosophy has never changed. When it comes to the expectations down here in the weight room, from their commitment to the intensity to the expectations, our philosophy has never changed. I think that's set an area for a great relationship, for both of us to be successful."
Hernandez oversees a sparkling new weight room, the envy of most major colleges. Located beneath the North End Zone, it has become a major recruiting tool for the Illini.
"There's no doubt. This weight room right now is probably considered to be the largest or one of the largest when it comes to football-only weight rooms. That's information I get from these manufacturers who are considered to be the best going today and those NFL scouts who come and see different facilities throughout the whole year.
"From the equipment that's in it, the size of it, it's definitely considered to be among the top when it comes to a football-only facility."
The Illini have spared no expense to meet the equipment needs of its football program.
"Growing up in weight rooms that were all about rust and corrosion, the plates we have here are supposedly never going to rust because they're polyurethane-covered. Olympic bars and bumpers that come from Japan, who are considered to be the world's best when it comes to world weight-lifting equipment.
"It will definitely spoil you. But the bottom line at the end of the day, it's the amount of work you get done in it that gives you the results."
The Illini are putting in the work, and Hernandez is doing an outstanding job overseeing and guiding the program.