Walkon Viliunas Earns Scholarship With Play

The walkon tradition at Illinois has been an ongoing blessing for the football team. Players who believe they can play major college ball are encouraged to enroll on their own and earn scholarships. A number of athletes over the years have done that, with several making it to the NFL. The latest to earn a scholarship is tight end Eddie Viliunas.

The tight end position last year was so lacking in depth that walkon quarterback Eddie Viliunas was asked to move there. In just one year, he has developed so well he was given a scholarship beginning with fall semester. All his hard work paid off.

"It's real exciting. It's something I've always dreamed of and wanted ever since I came here. I'm happy about it."

Viliunas experienced the baptism of fire last fall and helped the Illinois team to a winning record and bowl appearance. Both last fall and this spring, there was minimal depth at tight end, which may have been a blessing in disguise for him personally. Now, there are no fewer than six tight ends on the roster, and Viliunas couldn't be happier.

"Yeah, it's crazy. We went through the spring, and it was me and Evan (Wilson) rotating. I kind of rolled an ankle and had to play through it and toughen up. Now with all the depth we have, including the young freshmen, we have guys who can step in and make plays at all times. It's pretty nice to rest between reps."

Freshmen Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse both have great potential and have seen action in 2011. Instead of being jealous of the competition, Viliunas has embraced it.

"They're great guys, and I hang out with them all the time. They're tall and athletic, and they make plays. They can do it all."

Viliunas caught his first Illini pass, a big 39 yarder against Western Michigan, and he looks forward to helping more in the pass offense. But Davis and LaCosse are ideal in the passing game due to their speed and athleticism. Unfortunately, neither played tight end in high school and are still learning blocking technique.

"It takes time. I played quarterback in high school, so I keep telling Matt to keep his head up if he gets down. I had my head down maybe 100 times before I got the technique down and could do all the things I needed to do."

The 6'-4", 250 pounder knows the importance of not being type cast as a player. He is confident the freshmen are improving as blockers.

"In this offense, you kind of have to do it all. We can't really put in certain people for blocking or running routes, so you have to do it all. Otherwise, the defense is gonna know what you're doing. The people that can do both blocking and pass catching are the ones who are successful."

Of course, Viliunas continues to improve as well.

"I've improved my overall technique. Since I'm already the biggest and strongest, I've been working on my technique a whole bunch. Just becoming more flexible and working on technique, things all tight ends need to have to be successful.

"And my overall route running. Knowing what is going on. I have pretty good hands, so I've been able to do that pretty well."

With so many skill players capable of helping the Illini this year, Viliunas explains it gives the offense many options and opposing defenses nightmares.

"We have so many different personnel groups with the wide receivers, tight ends and fullbacks. There will be times where there's four tight ends in the game and times where there's five wide receivers in the game. We'll have guys running all over the field with all the personnel we've got.

"We basically put people in the best positions so that they can be successful. If somebody's doing something, we'll keep coming back to it. If we can rush for 500 yards a game or throw for 500 yards a game, it would be awesome."

Viliunas becomes more thrilled with the offense with each passing day. And the best is yet to come.

"I'm real excited. I think we've got a lot of camaraderie on the offense right now. We've got the motor running a little bit and making a lot of plays. I'm excited to see how we look when we come out on Saturday to see what we can do."

Tight end coach Chip Long trusts Viliunas explicitly. When Zach Becker was lost to injury, he knew he had an able replacement.

"Eddie stepped in right where Zach left off. Eddie did a great job stepping up. He helped secure the edge in the Arizona State game on the deep post to A.J. (Jenkins). I have full faith Eddie will do a great job."

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