Glenn Foster was looking forward to playing defensive end last season, but a last minute change put him at tackle. Weighing only 270 pounds, he wasn't able to garner as many tackles and sacks as he wanted.
But his quickness forced teams to play him straight, allowing adjacent teammate Whitney Mercilus to achieve success. He also occupied blockers so Illini linebackers could make more tackles.
"I felt like my job last year was pretty much to play for my team and not for myself. I was just doing my assignment and being disciplined. If I take my gap away, others can make plays. I took one for the team.
"Especially when they moved (Craig) Wilson out at the last minute and put me in. I had to make the sacrifice. I feel that paid off because I got field experience. Now I know my issues, what I need to improve on and get better at."
Overall, he was pleased with his play in 2011.
"I felt that, as a first year starter, I played well. I've got to make a lot more improvements, but that's why we're here in spring ball, to get better. And that was undersized too at 270, and not much strength. This winter I got much stronger, and it's paying off right now."
Foster now has the weight and strength to be a legitimate defensive tackle, and he's excited about the possibilities.
"I'm at 290 now. I'm real happy with that. I actually toned it down too, so I've got a lot of power in my lower body. And my upper body strength is tremendous; I'm as strong as I've ever been since I've been here. It's a factor for me."
The Illini experienced tons of turmoil last year, including the loss of their coaching staff. But the transition to Tim Beckman and all the changes he brought with him from Toledo are appealing to Foster.
"It's going pretty good. I'm actually surprised how fast we've come together after the sudden adversity and change we experienced losing Coach (Ron) Zook. We've been working together as a team, and we're as close as we've ever been."
It appears the changes in schemes and terminology have been minimal, allowing defenders to pick everything up quickly.
"I've got to say the defensive schemes, they're not trying to throw a bunch of new stuff in there. They're trying to keep it simple for us so we can learn how to play fast. Come season time, we'll be quick and not have any M.A.s (missed assignments). It's not bad."
The Illinois defensive line benefitted when its coach Keith Gilmore was retained on the new staff.
"I was really excited because we've lost a lot of guys that have been here, a lot of coaches. Coach Gilmore is very close to us. On the d-line, he's like our second father. With him staying around, it's a lot more motivation for us defensive linemen, not only to stick around but to play with a lot of energy and effort."
Foster is also encouraged by early returns for new defensive coordinator Tim Banks.
"He's a good guy, he's cool. He's tough, he has high standards, and I like that. He set the bar for us to fly around the ball and be disciplined. His main focus is for us to get takeaways. We had like 23 takeaways last year. And we need to improve that so the offense can get the ball back more."
As good as the Illini defense was last year, Foster believes the best is yet to come.
"This year, we've got an extra year of experience. We didn't lose many guys on defense, and a lot of guys had experience also. I guess this year is for us to play a lot faster, a lot quicker and a lot more disciplined since we're seniors now. There's a lot of seniors."