Griffin Palmer admits that he didn't exactly look like a future Big Ten tight end during his senior year at De Smet Jesuit High School.
"I was a stick," the St. Charles (Mo.) native said. "I was probably 210 (pounds). I'm 6-foot-5, so 210 did not look good, that's for sure. I was a little underrated in high school because of my size."
Palmer never had much time to devote to the weight room during high school because he was a multi-sport athlete. But once his senior basketball season ended, he hit the weights -- hard.
Palmer showed up to his first Illini fall training camp 20 pounds stronger -- and jacked, with a lot of muscle but little body fat on his 6-foot-5 frame.
"I just busted my butt," Palmer said. "I took this seriously. I take football very seriously. I'm here for a reason. I didn't come here to ride the bench. I didn't come here to go, unfortunately, 3-9. I came here to win a Big Ten championship and I came here to play."
After three Illinois senior tight ends graduated, Palmer will play a big role for the Illini this season. This spring, he is repping mostly with the first-team offense.
Illinois offensive coordinator Garrick McGee wants a dynamic, versatile option at tight end, a player who can block defensive linemen but can also be a matchup problem in the passing game. Palmer may be his best option in 2017.
Palmer is one of the best blockers of an unproven Illini tight end group -- along with fullback Nate Echard, redshirt freshman Andrew Trainer and walk-on Bobby Walker -- and is developing as a receiver. Sophomores Zarrian Holcombe (long but thinner) and Caleb Reams (short but athletic) are stronger receivers but must make strides as blockers.
"Griffin ultimately is going to be a great player," McGee said. "I think he's an on-the-ball tight end, a Y, a guy that we need. I think he needs to get bigger. I think he needs to have a good summer and put some weight on, get stronger because he's going to have to deal with defensive ends in the Big Ten and most of them are big and physical.
"I think he's going to develop as a receiver as he gets more physical, gets stronger. I think he's going to develop. The intermediate route game I think he's pretty good at. He makes some sharp speed cuts. He understands how to create some separation. He just needs to develop and grow and become more flexible and more athletic."
Palmer said his goal weight for the fall is 240 pounds. The weight has come on pretty easily for Palmer, but he has maintained single-digit body fat.
"I'm trying to put on good weight, stay fast, stay agile, just do it the right way," Palmer said. "I just want to be as versatile as possible. I want to be the guy they put out to block that big six technique from Iowa. I'm going to block that SAM linebacker from Wisconsin, or to run that route, that seam, or to run that five-and-out and catch the ball and score. I want to be as versatile as possible that way they can put me out there in any situation."
While the 2017 season will provide his toughest test yet, Palmer had some pretty challenging practice exams against some NFL prospects last fall on the scout team.
"I will say this, blocking Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips really helps you out," Palmer said. "Taking that redshirt season on scout team and blocking those bad boys, you're not going to see great ones like them. They're All-Big Ten, so that really helps you out."
Palmer may not have looked like a no-doubt Big Ten prospect in high school. But a year of grinding and gaining in workouts will give him the opportunity as a redshirt freshman to prove he belongs.
"I knew this was my chance to shine," Palmer said. "I worked my butt off all offseason. I redshirted. I took those lifts seriously. I really worked on sculpting my body. I tried to get bigger. I tried to get stronger, tried to get faster. It's paying off hopefully."