Zach Becker has undergone an odyssey few college students could survive and keep their sanity. Originally a walkon from nearby St. Joseph, Becker earned a scholarship for his play at fullback.
He was penciled in as a starter at both fullback and tight end two summers ago, before a series of stress fractures in both feet forced him to miss most of the 2010 season and all of spring ball in 2011. Finally healthy by last fall, Becker began to play well before tragedy struck again. He broke his leg near his ankle and had to seek an extra year of eligibility to play in 2012. Becker seems to be taking the setbacks in stride.
"In the first game last year, I think I played the most of the tight ends. I think I played 44 plays. But then I got hurt in the second game. I'll just keep working hard, that's all I can do. I've done this before, I've just got to fight back into it."
He is enjoying spring ball, but he still needs some extra work to feel 100%.
"I'm feeling pretty good. I'm just a little sore since this is the first time I've worn pads since September 10. I'm getting back into it. Every week is probably a little better.
"It's just my ankle right now. We're still rehabbing it once or twice a day, trying to get the rest of the swelling out of there and get it strong again. Structurally it's fine; all the X-rays look good. The surgeon is real happy with the way it looks. I'm just trying to get my strength back up in my ankle so it's not so sore."
New Illinois head coach Tim Beckman is making Becker excited to come to work every day.
"Coach Beckman is great. He's an up-tempo guy, high energy. He's been with some of the best players in the country his whole career, so everybody's really trying to learn from all the coaches who have been different places with great staffs. They have a lot of information for us to learn, and we are excited to learn every day.
"This is only my second head coach, but as far as offensive staff, this is my fifth coach in five years. It's good though, everybody likes the staff. They like the way they're doing things and the attitude that they bring.
"They changed a lot of stuff around here, trying to change the atmosphere. I don't think any of the rooms at the Stadium look the same anymore. They kind of did a makeover there. In all the workouts, we've kind of come together as one. We're just getting better on the little things right now."
Alex Golesh is Becker's tight end coach, but running back coach Tim Salem has also been involved this spring due to a shortage of running backs. It has kept the 6'-3", 250 pounder on his toes.
"Coach Golesh is great. I worked with him all winter. And then before the first real practice, they told me and Chris Willett that, because we are short at running back right now, we're going to work at running back.
"So the night before the first practice, me and Chris were stressed. We had our own exams, and then we had to learn our new position in one night. But both of the coaches are great. They know their stuff. Everybody's trying to learn the offense; it's new to them too. So it's kind of a stretch for everybody right now."
Becker never ran the ball before this spring, but he is taking advantage of the opportunity.
"I've got some carries the last couple of days. The other night, I had one carry of 30 to 40 yards. It's probably the first time I've taken a handoff since high school. Even then, it was out of the 'I' formation rather than any read-zone stuff. Every day, it gets a little easier and slows down a bit for me. That first day was just a blur. I was running into people.
"It almost takes me back to my grade school days where I was the biggest guy on the field and ran the ball a lot. Obviously, I'm not going to be out there every down running the ball. But it's fun to change it up and learn the offense from that perspective. Sooner or later, we'll get more running backs in here. It will help me because I know what they're trying to do."
There is usually no fullback in a spread offense. But in the long run, Becker feels his best chance for playing time will be proving his worth as a fullback.
"These coaches are big on having the best guys play. I'm just trying to work hard right now. We don't have a lot of fullback stuff in right now, and we're so deep at tight end that I'm not doing anything there. We have some guys who are real good there.
"So I'm just working hard and showing them I deserve to be out there. Eventually they'll put in a package for me."
That is, if he can stay healthy for his final season. Everyone hopes his long ordeal is now in the past.