Justin Hardee used this spring to solidify himself as one of the premier wideouts on the roster, a player on track for plenty of targets this fall.
There was a time when many predicted 2013 to be Hardee's breakout year. It didn't happen. It wasn't his time.
"It hurt me so much, broke my heart sitting on the bench, but at the same time it made me better," Hardee said. "It made me way more humble than I was, so I feel like I benefitted from it."
One of the more athletic players at Illinois (his started his career at cornerback), Hardee took many by surprise his freshman season. He caught 17 passes for 195 yards, impressing with a physical style and a complete lack of hesitation.
Then came last season. Seniors Ryan Lankford, Miles Osei and Spencer Harris were already players ahead of Hardee in terms of experience and depth chart standing. The emergence of Steve Hull, who moved from safety, further buried Hardee.
And new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit was tough on the Cleveland, Ohio native in fall camp. Hardee didn't get his feelings hurt. He didn't take Cubit's corrections, loud and repetitive, and turn them into an adversarial situation.
"He was hard on me just because he saw the potential," Hardee said. "He knew I needed to go, and he knew my time was coming. I thank him for that. God blessed me by having him as my offensive coordinator because it made me a better person and a better player."
Hardee's production dropped off in 2013. He had 11 receptions for 95 yards, full season stats that looked like a normal game for Hull. Again, Hardee didn't take it personal. It hurt, but he knew he had to spin every circumstance and situation forward.
"I would say it was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me I got to sit down, and I got to just pay attention to the older guys," Hardee said. "It was very hard just seeing everyone else do well and knowing I could make the same type of plays. At the same time it was a good thing because I learned from it and now I'm a leader."
Hardee said he wanted to lead. But he also showed it this spring. It wasn't always perfect, but Hardee says he had to become a guy Cubit could trust. There wasn't time to lecture and motivate. Hardee had to do that for himself and set the example for the incoming wideouts.
"That's the role that I want," he said. "That's the reason we play football. If a guy doesn't want that then he shouldn't be playing.
"I know I have to work when I'm tired. I feel like if I can do those those things I can better myself."
What Hull did. The offensive success enjoyed in Cubit's first season. The excitement generated by the quarterback competition. All of that has shown Hardee what's at stake and how good Illinois could be on offense in 2014.
He's come a long way, and there's still a long way yet to go. But Hardee has positioned himself, thanks to prior experiences, to lead over the course of the next two seasons.
"No doubt, I surely believe that we can be the No. 1 offense in the conference," he said. "Just by all the athleticism and smarts from the players and especially Coach Cubit, he's a great guy. He knows a lot. He puts us in the right position at the right place at the right time. That's something that we have an advantage at over other teams because we've got a genius, an old school coach who knows a lot and has been around for so long. It's a pleasure playing for him in this offense. We could definitely be one of the top offenses in the country."