Michael Buchanan ranked fifth on the Illinois football team in tackles with 60 in 2011. He was credited with 6.5 sacks among his 12.5 tackles for loss. He also had four quarterback hurries, one forced fumble and one pass breakup in an excellent junior season. He might have been the team leader in sacks except for the sensational year enjoyed by Whitney Mercilus.
Overall, Buchanan was pleased with his effort. But he knows he could have performed even better.
"I feel my season went all right. I feel like I left some plays out there. I always like to challenge myself. I could have done a lot better in some instances, but I feel like I had a pretty good season."
His success merely whetted his appetite for the future.
"Next year I'm trying to take it over (from Mercilus). I'm ready for the off season, I'm ready to get better. That's the time when guys really improve their game. I want to do the training and all those types of things so next year will be my year."
The 6'-5", 240 pounder realizes he must continue to improve plus gain weight and strength.
"I want to put on some more weight. I think I did pretty good with putting on weight this last off season. I'd like to put on about 10 more pounds.
"I want to work on being a pass rusher. I want to get stronger, everything. There's no part of my game I can't get better at. The one thing I want to focus on is putting on more weight and be more flexible."
Buchanan looks forward to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, but he ponders what might have been.
"Going to California is fine, but we know we should be in a bigger bowl. We let some games get away. But we're still happy with it."
He has seen the Illini progress through bowl practices.
"Things have been going great. We're getting better every day as a team. A lot of guys are coming together. We really like the situation we're in right now. We get to play a good UCLA team, so I'm feeling pretty good right now."
With final exams out of the way, the Illini have had plenty of time to study film of the Bruins for their bowl game.
"We've been watching a lot of film of them a couple weeks now. I feel like we've got a good understanding of their offense and the things they're trying to do.
"They have pretty good guys on the offensive line. They have a pretty good quarterback. He's a mobile quarterback, so we have to make sure we keep our eye on him and be able to contain him. We just have to come out and execute and get a win.
"They change it up with their zone read. They run their quarterback a lot; he's their playmaker. As he goes, they go. Like a lot of things we've seen before."
The future is uncertain due to the hiring of Tim Beckman as the new head coach. Like his teammates, Buchanan is willing to wait until January to learn more about any new defensive schemes.
"We haven't talked much to new coach Beckman yet. Nobody's 100% sure what's going on with a lot of different things. I just know we have a new coach coming in, and whatever he brings in, we're comfortable."
Right now, the Illini are focused solely on the bowl game. Buchanan says they are over the doldrums from losing six straight games and their coaching staff. He believes they can end their 2011 season on a positive note.
"Yeah. It was rough in the beginning because of Coach (Ron) Zook leaving and everything, but I think the seniors and the leaders of the team have bonded everybody together. And Coach (Vic) Koenning has done a great job of keeping everyone together. We're just focusing on the main goal of beating UCLA. I think we're pretty good."