Jeff Allen's story is that of a young man who succeeded despite long odds. An overweight lineman at Martin Luther King High School in Chicago, he was not highly recruited. He lost weight and impressed Illinois coaches at a summer camp, earning a scholarship offer.
Now entering his senior season, Allen has three years starting experience and has improved every season. Illini head coach Ron Zook says he is a perfect example of a young man making good.
"The thing I liked the most about him when we recruited him, besides his athleticism, was that he wanted to come to the University of Illinois. Playing at the University of Illinois from the state of Illinois was important to him.
"That's why you're happy to see a guy who will be a high NFL draft choice. He's a leader, he's gonna have his degree. He has all the things you want him to have.
"He gets better and better and better. He's a good player. He's gonna have an opportunity to play on Sundays. He's come a long way, not only on the field but off the field as well."
Allen still has trouble believing he's starting his final season.
"It's something to look forward to, being my last year. But it's a little bittersweet. The time has gone so fast. When I was a freshman, Coach Zook told us it would come on us fast. We'd be seniors before we know it.
"You don't listen. You work hard, you put the time in. When you look back on it, the biggest thing about being a senior is that you don't have any regrets."
To guarantee no regrets, Allen has dedicated his final season to going all-out on every play.
"Exactly. Put it all on the line, play hard for your teammates and coaches. Hopefully, you get the end result that you want."
He wants to play pro ball, but his primary goal is a team goal.
"The big thing about this last year is, we have a common goal to win the Big 10. We have a lot of guys who believe in that. We have great leadership in Nate (Scheelhaase), myself, A.J. (Jenkins), and that's just the offensive side of the ball.
Allen was one of several team leaders who met regularly to understand and implement their roles.
"Yeah. On the offensive side of the ball, a few of us met every Wednesday over the summer. We'd discuss our goals and what we need to do to make the team better."
A big point of emphasis was team bonding.
"There were opportunities all summer. Offense and defense, we came together during the summer. Sometimes we'd have cookouts at each others' houses, go to each other's house and play video games, go out bowling, golf, things like that. We had a little golf league. We'd go golfing 9 holes out at Savoy every weekend. It was something to do."
Allen has struggled with his weight for many years. But continued emphasis has paid dividends.
"I'm in much better shape this year. I know the reason I worked really hard this off season...I'm in much better shape and flying around. It benefitted me by practicing hard.
"I worked with what I had, you know. I got better each year. I was probably in the best condition I could be at the time. Each year I continued to get in better shape."
He has also continued to refine his game. The more he learns, the more he can do as an offensive tackle.
"You're always learning, especially on small things. Little technique things like hand placement and taking the right footwork each play. It's not knowing the plays like the younger guys, it's the small things like technique.
"You don't have to be the strongest guy to get movement. You've got to hit the right landmark."
Those little things are essential at the snap of the ball. Offensive and defensive linemen employ a complex formula to gain advantage in that instant. It happens too fast for the untrained eye to witness, so linemen rarely get the praise they deserve.
"That's true, but it's part of the job. You get used to it. It's something that becomes natural. Like where you step on a play, taking the right footwork. In pass protection, you want to stick the defender with your inside hand. You don't want to give up the outside. Just staying square and keeping a base. It becomes natural.
"It takes awhile. I definitely didn't have it my freshman year. I started to get better my sophomore year. I was much more consistent my junior year. My senior year, Coach (Joe) Gilbert tells me, 'Be perfect. At least try to be.' That's something I'm working on, trying to be perfect."
Allen wrestles daily with Illini defensive players. He shares his thoughts on his toughest opponents in practice.
"On the defensive line, Akeem Spence. Anytime you have to come down on a down block and block that guy, he's a load. He's a strong guy and tough to move out of the way.
"Linebackers, you've got Ian Thomas. You don't know what he's gonna do. He'll hit you, he'll avoid you, you never know. He's an elusive guy out there."
Allen works directly against defensive end Whitney Mercilus much of the time. They are improving together.
"Whitney is coming along well. He's definitely gotten so much better. He took advantage of his redshirt year and got stronger. You can definitely see that in him now. He's a big guy, a load. And he's getting better on his technique. He's coming off the ball a lot better than last year.
"We're out there to make each other better. If I can make Whitney better, if he can make me better, it's gonna make us better as a team."
The Illini offense has more skill players than previous years. It is fun for Allen and his line mates to block for talented players.
"Definitely. You see all the guys in practice making plays, it gets you excited to block longer. Like giving Nate an extra second in the pocket or opening big holes for the running backs. You know they can make a big play."
Allen is confident the UI offense will explode on unsuspecting opponents this season.
"Yeah, definitely. We broke the scoring record last year, first year (Paul) Petrino was here. And we didn't really get started until second half of the year. This year, we have the same offensive coordinator and same guys. We've just got a lot more confidence. We want to start off where we left off."
Allen's heart was warmed when told an Illini freshman claimed a goal of getting to the first ever Big 10 Championship game this season.
"Yeah, that's a goal. It's good a freshman said it. Everyone feels the same way now. That's what we want to do."