Lyons Township tight end Eddie Viliunas is preparing for his final season with the Illinois football team. Illini coaches have praised him and listed him as a starter even though junior Evan Wilson has started for two years, and sophomores Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse have promising futures at the position.
"Me and Evan are splitting both ways. We're doing a lot of 12-personnel stuff. So by no means am I the clear-cut starter. We also have Matt and Jon, so we all kind of rotate.
"Matt is coming along real well, blocking on the ball, same with Jon. Jon is a real quality playmaker. We are all making plays and doing our thing out there. It's pretty awesome.
"I think we are all going to be taking reps as tight ends. But the thing is, when we go into 12 personnel, I will be flexed out or Jon will be flexed out where we're running like a wide receiver."
Viliunas has needed to adapt to changing offensive philosophies during his years on campus. When head coach Tim Beckman and his staff arrived last winter, adaptations were necessary. Viliunas feels he is catching on quickly.
"I've really taken a liking to this offense. I've been progressing here and there in practice, just trying to learn more about what's going on with the new coaches and the new offensive schemes. It's really going along well."
Tight end is the team's deepest position, so most assume the offense is being modified to fit their abilities. Viliunas feels that is only partially true.
"I think they're just trying to let players make plays out there. I don't think it's totally adapted to the tight end that way. We're just using tight ends because we are older as a group out there. Jon and Matt are kind of young, but they still have a lot of experience.
"All four of us played last year, and I think they realize that. The receivers are still young. They put us out there because we can block on the perimeter and catch balls."
The new spread offense utilizes a strong passing attack that looks for mismatches to get players in the open field where they can make plays. Will the tight end see more passes coming his way this fall?
"This spring, I caught a few more balls than I did last year. I'm catching a lot of balls every day, so it's going pretty well. I like it a lot.
"I think the quarterbacks have more confidence in us now. I don't think it's a scheming-type thing to throw to the tight ends. It's just working out that way. We're getting open, and they're throwing the ball to us."
Personally, the 6'-4", 255 pounder feels he has continued to improve.
"I think my route running and my overall blocking on the perimeter are better. My technique has gotten a lot better since last year. I think running routes, catching the ball and making plays is something I wanted to do, and it's something I've started to do."
Part of that improvement has been required due to the intense competition at the position. Tight end coach Alex Golesh oversees the group, and he lights a fire under them.
"Coach Golesh said, if you have an off day one day, you're back to the bottom of the order. You've got to come out every day ready to practice and play. If you're not, you're going to be left behind."
Viliunas has worked for several coaches in his Illinois career. Before Golesh were Chip Long, Greg Nord, Mike Schultz and Mike Locksley. He has learned from each one.
"Coach Golesh is awesome. It's a whole different philosophy from last year. Coach Golesh gets on you and coaches you up pretty good. That's something I really like. It's not so hectic as it was last year.
"Coach Golesh really likes to be your best friend and make a connection with you. I think that's the best way to go out there because you build trust in each other.
"Coach Long was awesome. He's the reason I stuck to tight end. He's one of my favorite coaches that I've ever had because he gave me a chance to go out there and play. Coach Long really coached me up and got on me, and I think that's the reason I got so good with my technique.
"It's just a newer feel. All the coaches are new. It's a new beginning. Coach Beck (Beckman) is awesome. All the coaches are real awesome. I'm really getting along with all of them."
Viliunas admits it takes time to change the offense.
"It's a lot different going from a more pro-style offense to a spread-type offense. The thing is, you've got to install a little bit every day. You can't go put in a whole bunch of stuff at once because it's going to be harder to remember.
"I think we've done a good job every day of getting better. All these spring practices, we've got it on tape now. Now we go into the film room and get a chance to learn."
Two years ago, the Illini switched from the spread to pro-style offense, and it took until midseason before the team appeared to gel. He believes the learning curve will be faster this time.
"I think we've got a lot of experience. A lot of us have been through it now. This offense is similar to when I first got here with Coach Locksley. That seems like a long time ago, but it's all kind of the same thing. A lot of our players were recruited to be in the spread offense, so I think we're picking it up pretty well. I think come Western Michigan, we'll be all right."
The Illini defense had a great 2011 season, and most of their starters return. After going against it every day in spring ball, Viliunas feels the offense held its own.
"Our defense is awesome. We've been doing pretty well, but it's back and forth. The offense might be better one day, and the defense might be better the next. It's real competitive out there."
Viliunas has a younger sister Alexis who will be a freshman scholarship volleyball player at the UI this fall. The siblings will have one year together on campus. Is he looking forward to it?
"Yeah, although my parents are looking forward to it more. They want me to watch out for her. I'm excited for her to get down here."