Experience is something that has no price. Just ask Evan Wilson. A true freshman last year, Wilson was thrust into the starting tight end role from day one for the Illini. Now with a year of experience in college, Wilson feels much more comfortable with the game.
"Just the experience and the base understanding of everything that's going on. Every week is new when you're a freshman, so I'm not surprised by anything anymore. I know what to expect."
Wilson knows not to get too complacent with the offense, though. Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino is constantly molding and changing his offensive schemes to keep opponents guessing. Wilson knows he always needs to be on his toes.
"It can always change in a second, but right now I have all the basics. So if he puts something in, I can adjust to it."The 6'-6", 250 pounder came in with a great frame but needed to add strength to perform as a more complete tight end. A year of lifting later, Wilson belives he can not only be an effective pass-catcher, but his blocking has greatly improved also.
"Much better. Just a year in the weight room does a lot for it. You can have the foot placement and the ability, it's just you have to have the strength behind it. That's what developed this year."
Wilson had 11 catches last year, 3 of which went for touchdowns. Though he didn't have many balls thrown his way, the ones he did catch were productive. He hopes his role in the passing game will expand this year.
"Yeah. I just have to keep making the plays I did last year. The balls will come to me. It's a "show me" game out there in practice, so if I keep doing what I've been doing, I'll be alright."
Wilson was joined this summer by two dynamic tight ends in Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse. Neither was a tight end in high school (Davis a split back and LaCosse a quarterback), but Wilson believes each brings special ability to the table.
"They're great players. Both of them are great. A lot of playmaking ability. They're young. That year in the weight room will help them out for next year. But both of them have great ability.
"They push me in practice. When you see them go out and make plays, it makes you want to go out and make plays."
As the most experienced of the group, Wilson has taken a leadership role among the tight ends despite being only a sophomore.
"Yeah, I try to. With the new system, everyone feels young and inexperienced. Playing gives you a leg up, so I try to help everyone else."
Just as the tight ends are one of the youngest groups on the team, tight end coach Chip Long is also one of the youngest on the team. His coaching ability is on par with everyone else, but his youth allows him to meet his players on an even playing field.
"Him being a young coach, he relates to you a lot. And he knows what you're going through coming off just playing. Him mentoring me through that first year and walking me through helped me a lot to mature."
Long has helped Wilson refine his game. He is a natural tight end, but Long has helped him focus on the finer points of his position.
"Just the details of my position. Footwork, all the little things that add up to make me a better player. The detail on my routes, just so I can get more balls thrown to my position. I've been working on different routes, especially option routes and reading coverages. Just the things that come with experience."Long is excited to have the Georgian at Illinois for three more years. "He's good. He had a rough second game, but he played really well against Arizona State. He's getting better and better. You have to remember he's just a sophomore."
Wilson is a leader among the tight ends, but he says the team has a whole has a clear leader, and he's not much older than Wilson.
"It obviously starts at the top with Nate (Scheelhaase). Him being able to throw the ball more and things like that. The two freshman running backs we have are going to be great players for us. One speed guy and one power guy, so we have a great dynamic there."
The effort Scheelhaase is able to extract from his teammates goes far beyond organized practices. Wilson explains Scheelhaase is almost another coach on the field, even in the summer.
"It's an everyday thing. He calls us up every day out to the field to work. And when we're out there, it's like practice. It's strictly business. He runs a tight ship, and we all follow him. He even pushes the guys on defense to be better leaders."
So how much progress have the Illini made in the past year? Wilson says that it's not just a matter of skills, but the development of a winning mindset.
"Leaps and bounds. I wasn't around for some of the other seasons, but from what the coaches have told me, the culture has changed."
Wilson's role will be critical this season. If he continues to progress like he has this past year, his career will likely continue for years to come.