Jake Howe was recruited to Illinois originally to play fullback. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning asked that he be tried at defensive tackle instead. The former defensive end had to make a major adjustment that required a redshirt year.
"It was a little difficult at first, not playing. But guys made me realize I could still be a part of the team, and help out at practice."
Howe can tell the difference in his play. He was much better this spring than last fall.
"I've improved probably a thousand percent. Seriously, I'm getting the hang of it. Now I've got to get the things ironed out like the experienced players get with the calls and what exactly to do in every situation."
The McHenry native enrolled last summer at 270 pounds. He needed to bulk up.
"I weigh 300 pounds. I work out with the weights whenever the opportunity comes."
Was it possible to maintain his high school quickness at the new weight?
"Yeah, but this is different. Then I was on the outside. I'm not thinking so much now, so I'm getting quicker. And I'm getting used to the weight. That takes awhile."
Howe shared his assets and liabilities at d-tackle.
"I'm pretty good at run reads. I need to work at pass rush a little bit, but that will come here in the next 3-4 years. Nothing specific, just the pass rush in general. That's probably my weak spot."
He and fellow freshman Austin Teitsma are both defensive ends bulking up to play inside. They both show promise for the future.
"Me and Austin are second string. I think I'll have a chance to get in the rotation."
Howe says there is no comparison between the Illini defense now and a year ago when Koenning was in his first year with the team.
"I came and watched practice last year, and it was sloppy. But now for the most part, everyone knows what they're doing. After one season, everyone is going to know better what they're supposed to be doing. So line practices are more intense."
The Kinesiology major believes the Illini can have a quality defensive front despite the absence of first round draft pick Corey Liuget.
"I feel we're progressing a lot. We're filling up the spots that need to be filled up from the players that left last year. As a d-line, we're gonna be young, but we'll be good enough to fill up Corey's spot. It's not easy to fill his spot, but it's possible."
Howe is cautiously optimistic about the coming season.
"I think everyone's comfortable and ready for it."
They're also driven to achieve a quality bowl game, especially those like Howe who could only watch the Texas Bowl last December.
"I had fun. It's frustrating being on the sideline for a game like that, so I'm hungry for more."