Michael Heitz came to Illinois from VIT, a consolidated 1-A high school. After redshirting his first year on campus, Heitz was thrust into a starting role at right tackle. He is now a fixture on the line, something that continues to amaze him.
"I can't be thankful enough. It seems God has pretty much planned things out for me. Coming from a small school, I just hoped to get a scholarship offer somewhere. When I went Big 10, I just thanked God for that.
"Freshman year, I figured the redshirt was going to happen. But then coming in as a redshirt freshman and getting to start like I did, it was unbelievable."
Heitz struggled at times last fall, but he learned valuable lessons. He can see a definite progression in his game as he matures and gets stronger.
"I know I've gotten a lot stronger from working in the weight room. Knowing the game of football, knowing when a defensive end is coming off the edge, knowing when I have help from the tight end, things like that. Those are not really things they teach in the meetings, they're just things you pick up on. Little things like how certain people do things has really helped.
"Having more confidence to go out there after one year under my belt, knowing how difficult the season gets in the later games in how your body feels, I'll be more prepared for it this year. I know I went through it once, which helps."
Illini coaches praised his play this spring, but he isn't willing to rest on his laurels.
"I always think there's room for improvement. If I'm not perfect when I go out there every day, I feel like I need to get there. The self-drive I've had is something my parents threw on me, to always strive to do your best. If I'm not at that level, I always want to work harder."
Heitz and fellow redshirt freshman Simon Cvijanovic are the only experienced tackles on the team until Corey Lewis is cleared for full contact after multiple surgeries. Their backups are undersized redshirt freshmen Scott McDowell and Pat Flavin. Does he feel a special need to remain healthy this year?
"Everyone wants to stay healthy. Right now, we're real thin. But we've got the off-season summer program. I was in the same boat last year as Scott and Pat are this year. Depending on how hard they work over the summer, they can make huge strides. Come fall camp, we'll see what the situation is then.
"They've definitely got the ability. They're a little light right now, and they know it. But they work every day, and they do their lifts with us. They're definitely going to try, and I think they will be good."
New offensive line coach Luke Butkus has made a strong impression.
"I definitely love Coach Butkus. He's really enthusiastic, and he really gets us going every day."
Heitz prefers the approach to line blocking used in Tim Beckman's offense.
"Coach Butkus's thing is running off the ball. Move people that way instead of using the duck walk like Coach (Joe) Gilbert taught. Coach Butkus is more, 'Go fast off the ball.' Instead of just getting them and go, you run through them."
Of course, along with a new coaching staff was new offensive terminology and schemes. Heitz feels he is learning the offense.
"I'm pretty sure I have most of the offense down now. I'm now trying to get the little stuff I have to know, like what my tight end is doing. Is he going out this way?
"With a new offense, everybody has to learn from scratch. We're trying to get the plays down first and then perfect them."
Heitz was not highly recruited out of high school, but he is becoming an increasingly important cog in the Illini's offensive machine.