Illinois defensive tackle Akeem Spence earned Freshman All-American honors playing alongside 1st round NFL pick Corey Liuget two years ago. He was overshadowed by Whitney Mercilus, another first round draft pick, last season but continued to develop. This year could be his best year yet.
"The spring was pretty good for me. I got better, and I got stronger. I'm carrying this extra weight real good. I'm up to 315. I wanted to be a little heavier so I could hold up against bigger teams like Wisconsin and Michigan."
How has he improved since last fall?
"Just coming off the ball every play. And getting in better shape so I can play a lot more. I'm developing as a leader on the defense with guys like Mike (Buchanan), Glenn (Foster) and Tim (Kynard). We want the guys to rally around us."
Spence has also improved his communication skills. No longer a nervous rookie, he has stopped adding, 'You know what I mean,' after every sentence. He reacts to reporter questions with the confidence earned from two solid years on the field.
Speaking at the conclusion of the Spring Game, the Floridian was an eloquent spokesman for the dominant defensive line.
"We've got like four starters, and last year our line was real strong. We know the calls, we know how to get lined up, so all we have to do is beat the guys across from us.
"We are feeding off one another. Mike would make a play, then I would try to make a play. Same with Glenn, Justin (Staples) and Tim. We're just trying to play fast."
Having experienced, mature starters makes the defensive line formidable.
"Mike, Glenn, Staples and I try to make a competition out of it. We try to see who can get the big sack or make the big play to get us off the field. Last year it was Whit (Mercilus), so now we've each got to step up. That's what we're trying to do."
Even the change in coaching staffs has done little to slow down the defensive line.
"The schemes are so similar to last year, so it clicks with us. It's just different terminology."
Spence is pleased Keith Gilmore was retained as d-line coach after the coaching change.
"Yes, it helps having Coach Gilmore with us. When a new play comes in, he explains it just like the play we did last year. We hear it a couple of times and just pick it up.
"We're trying to get good recruits in, and Coach Gilmore is a great coach. He works on a lot of technique every day, and we pick it up. We go out and execute."
New defensive coordinator Tim Banks has also made a good impression.
"Coach Banks is a real cool guy. He's laid back, but at the same time he's kind of fiery like Coach Beckman. He told us he's not coming here to try to change everything. He told us as a defense, we've got to work on takeaways. Takeaways can change the game for the offense with the change in field position. We worked on that this spring."
The Illini still need to develop depth at defensive tackle, but Spence is certainly a quality starting point. The strongest Illini player now has the experience and confidence to be a true difference-maker in 2012.