Craig Wilson is perhaps the Illinois team's largest member. Listed conservatively at 6'-5", 320 pounds, the athletic Wilson has gone from being a reserve on the offensive line to starter on the defensive line entering his final season of eligibility.
It is a big transition for the athletic and acrobatic Wilson, but he is working hard to learn the techniques required for the position. The Illini held a double session Wednesday at Camp Rantoul, and the defense was required to do up-downs and extra jogging afterward. And yet Wilson and fellow defensive tackle Jake Howe were last off the field, working extra on technique.
Does he enjoy taking the extra reps?
"Oh yeah. It's fun."
The Thornton High School product knows how to bull rush, but there is much more to the position than that. He had spring and summer to learn, but any extra work helps.
"I'm working mostly on pass sets, getting off the ball, ripping off the blocks. When the ball comes, I've got to tear off and make the tackle. I think I'm a lot better since when I first started this spring."
Of course, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Wilson had early success in the spring, but the offensive linemen have learned how to counter his tendencies.
"From the spring to now, it's a lot different. The guys are aware of my bull rush and everything. They have an idea how I approach defense and how I come at them. So they were really ready when camp came along. It was a lot harder for me to try to make plays."
So now he must learn new approaches also.
"Yeah. They always keep me working. It takes a lot of repetition, but I'm learning new moves."
Offensive and defensive linemen must use opposite approaches to their positions. Wilson is beginning to enjoy expressing himself more forcefully on defense.
"There's a lot more freedom, like just letting all your emotions go. On offense, I'm supposed to block. I've got to refrain from that anger and forget about it. On defense, I've got to keep that anger in back of my head, but I can really take it out on the next guy. 'Remember the last play? I got you back now.'"
The defense won the battle with the offense Wednesday. Wilson had no regrets despite his friendship with offensive linemen.
"That felt real good. It's a real big competition between offense and defense. We're always talking trash to each other. We're getting in the cold tubs, at lunch, dinner and breakfast, we're still saying, 'When three o'clock comes, you better be ready to strap it up.'
"We get a chance to knock it out and see who has a little bragging rights. 'Yeah, we got you for tonight.' They can't say nothing until we suit up again."
Of course, he realizes it is a daily battle, and no one wins all the time.
"Yeah, they're gonna come out and try to punch us in the mouth. But we expect it. We won't talk a lot of trash tonight, but tomorrow, oh yeah. They're gonna be ready."
Wilson appreciates the teamwork on the Illini this year. He is important to the team, and everyone is trying to help him improve.
"Even the young guys, besides the guys that have been over here a long time, they're teaching me moves. And still the older guys are teaching me things. Like, 'Craig, you were high on this play,' or, 'Craig, keep your pads down.' They're always telling me something new."
Most defensive tackles are much shorter than Wilson. Keeping low is a problem, and as a former offensive lineman, he realizes how excited they get when they encounter a defensive tackle who stands up on a play.
A new piece of equipment was purchased recently. Running through it requires staying low. It's a challenge for him.
"It's coming along pretty good. Coach has a new shoot over there. It's pretty low. It's kind of hard for me to keep my head up. 'Craig, get lower.' I say, 'Coach, I can't hardly get much lower.' But they really emphasize keeping your pads down with a wide base. If you don't do that, you'll get driven back."
Wilson may not be ideal for the position, but he is needed and should continue to improve throughout the season. He is enjoying the mental approach defensive coordinator Vic Koenning requires of his defenses.
"Coach always emphasizes that defense is an emotional sport. So we try to bring that out."