Zach Becker arrived at Illinois four years ago as a walkon fullback. He earned a letter and the respect of his coaches and teammates. However, after the end of of his sophomore year, he endured a series of setbacks that he thought might never end. Finally healthy, he is happy to be back on the field.
"It's been 18 months since I've been totally healthy, so it's been a long time coming. But it feels good to be out here. I'm knocking some rust off. After I get that off, I'll be good."
Becker's main malady was repeated stress fractures in his feet.
"I've had five surgeries, three on my right foot and two on my left. And then I've had another break I never had repaired. I just rested that one.
"We've thrown everything we can at it. We finally got it figured out. It's just the way my feet are formed. The fifth metatarsal has a slight V in it, so the pressure goes to one point on it. The last X-ray showed no crack, so we're good now."
Will his feet survive the upcoming season?
"It's been 9 months since my last surgery. They said after 6 months, there was a 90% chance of full recovery forever. So I haven't had any problems."
Did he perhaps rush his recovery through eagerness to play football again, causing the relapses?
"It just depends from person to person. We've had several guys on the team the last couple years come back just as quick as me if not quicker and been fine. It's just one of those things."
As a precaution, Becker's return to practice was slowed to insure complete healing.
"They gave me the spring off. I didn't do any practicing, I was just working with Coach Lou (Hernandez, strength and conditioning). I was doing a bunch of running and light cutting, just trying to ease back into it in a progressive manner so I can get the bone density back."
Becker's feet may finally be healed, but it appears Nature had one final bit of cosmic humor for him prior to the start of fall practice.
"I had a rough time the whole month of July. I had poison ivy and MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), and I had a cold. I lost 12 pounds that month, so I'm still recovering from all of that. I'm coming back around finally."
Last year, Becker would have been a starter. But while he sat out, then freshmen Evan Wilson and Jay Prosch took over the tight end and fullback positions and did remarkably well. Now he faces additional competition from highly talented freshmen Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse. Becker describes the ability of the newcomers, who will compete with him for playing time.
"They're fast. They're gonna be really good players. They're great route runners. They haven't had to block much in their careers, so we're working on their footwork and explosion. By the time they get older, they're gonna be really good. They're gonna make some plays for us this year too."
Becker's versatility is perhaps his greatest asset.
"Where I play depends on the package. I practice more with the tight ends, but I know fullback, and I know the backside tight end also."
Whether he starts or not, he knows the Illini offense will be tough for any defense to stop consistently.
"It's gonna be a fun season. Everybody can't wait. No one wants to spend two weeks in Camp Rantoul, but everyone is really excited to put the work in. Everybody's looking forward to getting the season going.
"At the skill positions, we have receiver after receiver, plenty of tight ends, a lot of running backs. It's gonna be fun because we're never gonna be tired. We're gonna throw everybody at them. We're gonna be running, running, running."
The present looks promising, but Becker's future is uncertain. There's a chance he could be granted an extra year of eligibility.
"It's up to the coaches. I think Coach (Chip) Long is gonna try to get me one, but it just comes down to whether they want to do the paperwork for it. I'll take it if they can get one. I'll happily come back if I get the offer."