Tyler Sands saw playing time for Illinois as a redshirt freshman out of necessity in 2009, but he wasn't ready then. After nearly two more full seasons, he is prepared to start the Michigan game should teammate Hugh Thornton be physically unable.
"I'm working hard, and some guys have been nicked up, so I've been getting a lot of reps. I'm trying to push myself so I can be a good option if some of the guys go down."
Sands has seen time in every game so far this season, starting the Northwestern game. He has toiled behind Thornton and Jack Cornell the past two seasons, but he always knew his time would come.
"They're good, but they get nicked up now and then. The thing with backups is you're always one play away. It doesn't get me down at all. I come out and work every day. I'm excited. I've got another year after this, so I'm trying to give everything I've got and help this team win a Big 10 Championship."
Sands is capable of playing three positions and is prepared to back up center Graham Pocic also.
"I play mostly guard right now, but they're giving me a few reps at center just to make sure. I've done that for two years. I keep getting reps so it is fresh in my mind.
"Jake Feldmeyer is the second team center. But if Graham ever went down, it is the coach's call. I know I'll be ready. Wherever they need me, I'll go in. Two guards and center, I know them all."
The Boyertown, Pennsylvania, product has improved his body each year at Illinois, thanks in large part to Strength and Conditioning coach Lou Hernandez.
"Lou gets you right, I'll put it that way. The weight gains I had in the off season on my lifts have all gone up every year I've been here. I'm the strongest I've ever been. As far as conditioning, they get you in the summer, and they get you in camp. They get you right.
"I'm about 305. I used to weigh between 310 to 315. At one point, I was actually down to 285. My weight went up and down. But now I'm pretty comfortable at this weight."
Sands admits he needed time to learn proper technique. But he sites ways he has improved.
"Probably my pad level, getting down for my run blocks and just coming off the ball and not getting blown back. And on pass pro, just not getting beat. In my freshman and sophomore years, the lateral movement and getting used to the speed of the game (was tough). Now that I'm older, I'm used to that. It's something you pick up with age."
Sands has great respect for line coach Joe Gilbert.
"He has a lot different expectations than my first offensive line coach, Coach Wolf (Eric Wolford). He's more of a technique-based guy. He's really specific on what exactly he wants in footwork and where he wants your hands on every block. He's done a great job in helping us improve.
"He's usually pretty intense. I don't think I've ever seen him really relaxed unless he's away from football. As long as he's in the stadium or working with us, he's going full speed, and he's got that loud voice. He wants you to be perfect. If you're not, he'll let you know."
Sands appreciates the quality of the Illini running backs. They encourage top effort from their linemen, and they reciprocate.
"Yeah, it's really exciting. You see every day we come out to practice what these guys do. From Nathan (Scheelhaase) to Jason (Ford), guys lighting people up, flying down the field. Everybody's going full speed. It's exciting what we've got going on here.
"They break tackles, and that makes us want to block harder for them. Even in pass pro, they pick up a big blitz on a pass play, that makes us want to block for them in the running game. So them running harder makes us block harder, and us blocking harder makes them want to run harder. It goes both ways."
The Honor Roll student prefers a running quarterback like Scheelhaase even though blocking can be more difficult.
"Any offensive lineman will tell you that having a mobile quarterback helps a lot, but it also means that you have to block longer just because the play isn't dead in 5 seconds."
Most Illini opponents have applied extra pressure with a variety of blitzes, sometimes with great effect. Blitz blocking is a work in progress, but Sands believes the team has improved in that area.
"When they blitz, it's obviously an extra guy coming. But we focus on having to defeat the blitz. If we defeat the blitz, we can defeat anybody. We want them to blitz us because that means that there's more guys open downfield.
"We've just got to keep working on that. Sometimes we let a guy free, but we've got to put that play behind us. I think we've made a lot of strides in picking up blitzes."
Sands is still sold on Illini potential despite three straight losses.
"I feel like we're working very hard right now. Everything's lined up for us. We're gonna come out here every game and play as hard as we possibly can. If we do that, we have a really good future ahead of us."