Ryan Lankford caught six passes for 129 yards as a rookie at Illinois last year. His 52 yard touchdown reception in the Texas Bowl helped insure victory. His continued improvement was rewarded at the Spring Game as he was given the Most Improved award for offense.
"It meant a lot. It meant that my hard work is really paying off on the field and off the field. The coaches realize I'm trying to do my best and be the best player I can be."
The Jacksonville, Florida, speedster looked at the reward philosophically, knowing he must continue to grow as a receiver.
"I think I did pretty well. Of course, there were things I didn't do well and things I did exceptionally well. I don't want to say I had the best spring I could possibly have. I've just got to get better every year and be the best receiver by the time I graduate."
Still, Lankford has no doubt he can be a big help to the Illini this year.
"I really do. I feel like this can be a big year. I got a little bit heavier, so everyone won't see the skinny guy running down the field no more. I'm starting to feel a lot more confident, starting to catch the ball. It feels like I've been here over a year now, so I'm ready to get on the field and make some big plays."
"We can all get better. It's our second year, so it's time to really step up and learn the offense. Everybody can understand what they're doing and why they're doing it. I think the receiver corps as a whole is really making great strides."
Lankford and his fellow receivers have worked out independently this summer with UI quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Miles Osei to perfect their timing prior to fall. The better they know each other, the better they will do.
"Nathan's a great guy, and I room with Miles. So we all hang out a lot, getting to know each other. That really helps out."
Likely the fastest player on the team, Lankford is more than a receiver. He did everything for his Paxon School team, and he's looking to expand his role with the Illini. He was tried as a punter this spring, including some rugby-style punts.
"I played soccer ever since I was three, so I'm a soccer-first guy. In high school, I was the punter and kicker. So I've had a couple years of high school experience. It was nothing new to me.
"We were doing typical punting. It would only be rugby if they were rushing a particular side. But it seems like we were always going for it on fourth down. I do like it. I want to one day be the punter, be the kicker and play wide receiver."
He minimizes his value on fake punts, but the threat he poses to opposing teams as a triple threat requires them to prepare for more options.
"I only took off if the guy came in. I didn't want to be a selfish guy, making all the plays. If Coach said to punt, I punted the ball."
The fact he also played quarterback in high school might permit a pass from punt formation as well. But again he refuses to divulge any future plans.
"I did a little quarterbacking here and there."
Lankford feels the Texas Bowl win had a big effect on morale and confidence going into the 2011 season.
"Great effect. From the time we won the Texas Bowl through winter workouts, it seemed like everyone had a great attitude. If we had lost that Texas Bowl, we would have had a sour taste in our mouths. We'd still be hearing it, still be talking about bowl plays.
"The Texas Bowl gave us a lot of momentum going into the off season and getting ready for the upcoming season. We're all getting better. I just feel like it's gonna be a big year for us."
Scheelhaase is grateful to have Lankford as a receiving target.
"Ryan's done a great job of making big plays for us. With A.J. (Jenkins) and Darius, those are a bunch of big play threats. They can run down the ball and make big plays when they get the ball in their hands.
"As a quarterback, the more guys you have like that, the better you feel. Whoever is open, you can be confident with what they can do with the ball."
Illinois head coach Ron Zook admits Lankford is ahead of schedule.
"He's probably way ahead of where we thought he'd be when he came in here. He's such a good athlete, he has such a great attitude, you love him. He's just a great guy.
"Every day he becomes more consistent. It's important to him; he's very conscientious both on the field and off the field. I look for Ryan to make a lot of big plays for us this year."