Eddie Viliunas transformed his body with a winter dedicated to looking like a tight end and having the strength to block opposing defensive linemen. It paid off.
"Yeah, I know. I'm just trying to work hard in the weight room, get a little bit bigger in my chest and arms. Trying to fill out my body as much as I can."
A productive spring with a stronger body gave the 6'-4", 250 pounder confidence as a blocker.
"Definitely. Technique goes a long way when you're blocking, but strength also helps a lot. Especially when you've got guys on our team who are so big. It definitely helps out a lot."
Viliunas even caught some passes this spring. He wasn't involved with the passing game last fall, so he appreciated the extra responsibilities. Will he be used as a receiver in 2011?
"I hope so. I can always have high hopes, but if we keep making plays hopefully it keeps happening.
"I like to take pride in my route running. They're definitely trying to get me the ball a little bit more, and the tight end group in general. They have a bunch of plays for us, and Coach (Chip) Long can't stress enough for us to become playmakers. This is a tight end oriented offense, and he wants to get us the ball."
The Lyons Township product understands why the tight ends were not used much last year.
"We were younger. Evan (Wilson) was a freshman, Jay (Prosch, fullback) was a freshman, I was a sophomore. We were just a young group. We had a bunch of older guys like Jarred (Fayson) and A.J. (Jenkins), Fred (Sykes) and Eddie (McGee) basically had all played and caught balls before. They were the guys we wanted to get the ball to a whole bunch.
"Us being young, their experience probably took priority over us. Hopefully, as we get older and keep making plays, they'll let us get the ball a little more."
"The quarterbacks had to get some confidence in us, especially with Nate and Miles being freshmen. If they throw us the ball and we make plays, they look good and we look good as well. Once they get more confidence in throwing us the ball, they'll keep throwing to us."
With Zach Becker missing the whole spring due to injury, Viliunas and Wilson had to take all the snaps this spring. Rookies Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse will join the team this summer, and Viliunas is looking forward to sharing the load at Camp Rantoul.
"When it's 95 degrees out, it's real rough having just 2 or 3 guys. Having 5 or 6 is gonna be a lot nicer."
Of course, Davis and LaCosse both have speed and playmaking ability. They will compete for playing time, but Viliunas sees this as an asset.
"You're always gonna have competition no matter where you are, whether it's the business world or whatever. It's definitely gonna make it easier when they get here. Coach Long's gonna have to work with them to get them to know what's going on and teach them the offense.
"But with the frosh, maybe we can do every other play instead of every play. Having a big group of guys coming in is definitely gonna help the team a lot."
Viliunas, named Most Improved Walkon in the spring, feels he would not be as far along without Long's assistance.
"Coach Long gets on you a lot, but he's definitely just trying to make you the best player you possibly can be. If it wasn't for him, my technique would probably be nothing. Coach Long is probably one of the best coaches I've ever had."
Viliunas enjoyed the entire Texas Bowl experience, but he wants more.
"It was so much fun. An experience like that, all the hospitality, the hotel, just being there in nice weather when it was snowing back here was just amazing.
"The Texas Bowl isn't what you're striving for every year. You're trying for the Rose Bowl. You're trying for the Big 10 Championship, National Championship. We had a shot to make it to a little bit bigger bowl, but hopefully this year we'll step up our game and be able to go to a big-time bowl."
Illini head coach Ron Zook took note of Viliunas's spring improvement.
"He had a good spring. He's done a real good job. That's nice. That gives us two guys who can do a good job and make plays."