Back in 2007-08, Jack Cornell looked like he was about ready to burst at the seams. He needed to lose weight and gain strength to play offensive line at Illinois. As a fifth year player, he has transformed his body and been able to equilibrate at an ideal playing weight.
"I've stayed at about 300 this year. Last year I played at 310, but I don't have any issues keeping it off. I just seem to stay at 300. I feel comfortable there. It's helped my mobility a lot. My freshman year, I was upwards of 325 to 330. Getting down to 300, it's amazing how much better I can move."
It's also amazing what experience does for an offensive lineman. Cornell has worked with offensive line coaches Eric Wolford and Joe Gilbert in his four years on campus and feels he has benefitted from both.
"Some of the things (Wolford) taught still stick with me. He was a physical kind of guy, smash-mouth. Coach Gilbert's more technique and into the teaching part. Picking the best of both worlds is really paying off. Graham (Pocic), Jeff (Allen) and myself have been with both Coach Wolf and Coach Gilbert."
Cornell also had the pleasure of learning from one of the best offensive linemen in recent history at Illinois.
"My first three years, I had the privilege of playing behind a really great offensive lineman, Jon Asamoah. He kind of showed me the ropes, showed me what to do, showed me how to take care of my body. I learned from him.
"I always love football, and I always try to come out here and play as hard as I can. Finally, I started to get the technique down. I knew the offense pretty well, but it's the technique stuff and setting up and finishing that I had a little trouble with."
After more than a year as a starter, the Quincy native's confidence is up.
"Absolutely. Over the years, it's amazing how much you progress. Like I said, I just have a lot of fun out there. I love playing football. Coming out every day and competing."
He and Allen are the grey beards of the offensive line, and Pocic and Hugh Thornton also have a wealth of experience. They form the backbone of what should be an excellent offense in 2011.
"It all starts up front with us. I think it's the most experienced position right now. We're trying to set the tempo every day for the rest of the offense.
"I think leadership is a collective, unit thing. Everybody's gonna step up. We're old enough now, and we're all maturing. We've all played enough football now, we can help out these young guys. Just keep pushing offense every day."
That includes work in the summer when Illini players are on their own. He and the other older linemen organize summer workouts.
"We do drills. We work on hand position, all that. Just try to stay in shape and keep our technique going. It's harder when you don't have pads on. The backs can come out and run and throw, but with us it's really about fundamentals like footwork, hand placement, stuff like that.
"We're working with the defensive linemen as well. Sometimes we'll go one-on-one. But for the most part, we split up and do individual work. We have a lot of equipment we can hit on and practice technique.
"It goes on all summer long. Last year we did three days a week. As many times as we can. We understand we have an opportunity to do something special. The only way we can get to where we want to be is through hard work. That's the mentality we've got to take every day."
Cornell's time on campus has gone fast. He wants to savor every instant of his final year of eligibility.
"I want to have as much fun as I can. This is my last go-around in college. After this, it starts the real world. I don't want to take any moment for granted. I want to have as much fun as I possibly can and go out here and just win."
With a degree in Communications earned this May, Cornell is now looking toward a graduate program.
"I've now graduated. This fall, I'm starting a new degree program, something that Anterio Jackson did last year. It looks pretty good. I know my parents are excited I graduated, and I'm excited. Just see what happens next."
Illinois head coach Ron Zook praises Cornell.
"Jack has done a great job. In terms of guys who have changed their body, Jack has changed his body as much as anybody here. And it's helped him. That's why he played well last year. That's why he's playing well now.
"He's one of the leaders of our offensive line. He's been here a long time, and he loves this university. It's a confident feeling having guys like that around."