Alex Hill came to Illinois overweight. It has taken him more than a year to get his body where the offensive guard could make a contribution to the Illini football team according to former head coach Ron Zook.
"He's got his weight down where we needed to get it. That slowed him up last year, but he's worked hard to get his weight down. He has a chance to be a pretty good player."
Hill admits weight loss has been key to his development so far.
"I weigh about 315. I want to get down to about 310. I've lost about 40 pounds so far. My quickness has improved a lot. I'm a totally different person than I was the first year I got here.
"The thing that's been really different between now and spring is the effort I've been able to give. Since I'm in better shape, I can give a lot more effort. I can play a lot faster and do what the coaches ask me to do. I think I've done a pretty good job of that."
Hill was mired on the second team behind Hugh Thornton most of the year. But when Thornton sat out a couple games with arthroscopic knee surgery, Hill asserted himself well as the starter.
"I think Alex has done extremely well," Zook stated. "I wish now that we had pushed the issue to get him in there earlier in the year like we had talked about. He's going to be a fine player for us.
"He's a big guy, he's strong, he's got good leverage, he brings good energy. It's just that he's young; he's a redshirt-freshman. So all his football's in front of him. He's got his weight down, so he moves a lot better. He probably needs to lose a few more pounds, but he looks more like when we recruited him now."
Hill may have been discouraged riding the bench, but seeing time on the field perked him up quickly.
"Everything's been working out great for me now. I'm healthy, and everything's going pretty good."
His first play as a starter was in the Michigan game, and it was a false start.
"Yeah, I was pretty nervous and overeager. But I got the butterflies out after the first hits."
Michigan's defense blitzed multiple defenders multiple times. Hill feels he acclimated well to the tough assignment.
"It wasn't too much of a problem. I got after it and did what I was supposed to do. I had a pretty good game.
"We love when people blitz us. We have a great package against that. If they're gonna do it, bring it on. I personally love it when people blitz us. It means I usually get to hurt somebody."
Like most players, his first action in a college game is something he will never forget. It took him awhile for the game to slow down for him.
"It's a crazy feeling. It's what everybody dreams of growing up, under the lights, the crowd, everybody screaming.
"Everything's coming into play now. It's not as fast as my first plays. Especially my second game. It was a totally different game because I was well prepared. I knew what to expect this time."
Hill had the added benefit of playing next to 2nd team All-Big 10 tackle Jeff Allen.
"It's been the biggest help you could ever ask for. Even when you're down, he lets me know what it is. If I have any questions, I ask Jeff. He tells me what to do. I'll miss him next year, but I'll have everything down by then. Hopefully I'll be able to help some people out."
Hill is listed as a weakside guard, but he has been cross-trained at both guard spots. He has no preference.
"Either one, I'm happy. We pull a lot more on the weak side. There's a lot more screen plays toward the weak side. On strong side, we're trying to get more push off the ball."
Hill may be overly optimistic, the result of his personal euphoria at playing. But despite the offensive struggles the last six weeks of the season, he feels the offense is still good. He has an interesting take on what led to the problems.
"We're a great offense. We just have to not think so much. We get so fired up; maybe we're a little too fired up. But we're fine. There's nothing we can do differently, just do what Coach (Paul) Petrino tells us. If we stay fired up throughout the whole game, we'll be fine."
Petrino is no longer offensive coordinator at Illinois; he has returned to Arkansas. Offensive line coach Joe Gilbert may have to find alternative employment also. But Gilbert knows first hand Hill's potential.
"Alex has been coming along. As a redshirt freshman, he's probably right where he should be. At this point, you hope he's a little bit farther along because we've got to play him at this point."
Whomever coaches the team next year, Hill is excited about the future of the offensive line. He has worked with and competed against the five freshmen, and he is convinced the offensive line will be strong in the future.
"We have a great freshman class on the o-line. They work hard, and they're trying to push so they can get some playing time next year. We have a lot of depth on the offensive line. Those guys work really hard as freshmen. It's good to see we have a bright future."
Hill also has a good future. The Communications major's confidence has taken a major boost lately, and it will encourage him to work even harder in the off season.
"I have something to look forward to. Everything's working out great for me now."