RANTOUL, Ill. - Foot injuries and 300-pound bodies mix about as well -- and are as combustible -- as pop rocks and soda.
Teko Powell is all too familiar with this. The Illini defensive tackle was forced to alter the right half of all of his footwear after fracturing a bone in his foot, twice in one year. Powell wears an orthotic sole in all of his right shoes, including a sole with a metal rod in his football cleats.
Whatever it takes to keep pressure off that bad wheel and get back -- and stay -- on the playing field.
“It’s very tough, especially being a defensive linemen where your feet are everything,” Powell said. “It was a very, a very tough ordeal when the doctors told me it’s not good to wear slippers."
Powell suffered a fracture in his right foot during the 2013 season, causing him to miss most of 2014 spring ball. He returned last fall but re-fractured the same bone in his right foot on the first play of the third game of the 2014 season, at Washington.
“It’s just been a long recovery process,” Powell said. “This time, we just took everything along slowly and just stayed on top of everything close with the trainers. Now, it’s 100 percent. It’s fully ready to go.”
Since Powell played just three games last season -- fewer than the 30 percent threshold the NCAA requires for medical redshirts -- he received a medical redshirt and still maintains two more seasons of eligibility, hopefully boosting Illinois’s depth this year and next.
“The redshirt year actually it helped me,” Powell said. “Also, I realized that this could’ve been my to get two more years. Hopefully, I can be blessed enough to (go to the NFL this year), but if not, I can just work on my craft and get better.”
Powell figures to be a big part of the Illini’s stronger, deeper defensive line. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Miami native played in seven games as a true freshman, an oddity for freshmen defensive linemen. He started six games as a sophomore and was supposed to be the anchor of the middle of the defensive line last year. He currently is repping with the starting group, along with junior defensive tackle Jarrod Clements.
Add spring standout and team strongman Rob Bain, developing redshirt freshman Tito Odenigbo, veteran Joe Fotu (currently nursing an injury) and promising freshman Jamal Milan and the Illini have their deepest, most talented interior rotation of the Tim Beckman era -- if Powell’s foot holds up, of course.
“Number one, it gives us depth,” co-defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “Number two, he’s a kid that played as a freshman for us, so obviously thought a lot of him. He’s still rusty. I think he’d be the first one to tell you that. But I think just having his presence there, his experience there. He’s an added body, and when he starts to round into game shape, hopefully we’ll have the Teko of old.”
New defensive line coach, and co-defensive coordinator, Mike Phair hasn’t seen a lot of Powell yet -- again, the junior missed most of spring practice -- but likes what he sees so far.
“He’s a real talented guy,” Phair said. “His quickness and getting off the ball is excellent. That’s the thing that jumped off to me right off the bat on tape and on the field.”
Powell has gotten off on the right foot so far at Camp Rantoul. If that foot -- and the added footwear -- can carry the weight, Powell and the Illinois defense may take a big step forward.
“It’s been almost a year since I padded up and played football since last September,” Powell said. “...It was just very tough on me. But now that I’m back, it’s like a weight lifted off my shoulders. It’s just a blessing to be back and to do what I love.”