Pilcher started 10 games at defensive end for the Illini football team last fall as a redshirt freshman. He acquitted himself well despite butting heads with some of the top offensive linemen in the Big 10. He totaled 24 tackles, including eight solo tackles. While he had no quarterback sacks, he had five quarterback hurries and 6.5 tackles for loss.
We had a chance to visit with Doug at a recent practice. When asked about how much different the college game is for him now that he has a year's experience under his belt, he responded:
"It has changed a great deal. Just learning all the plays and alignments and how they can work against different teams gives me more confidence in what I'm doing. It took a long time to learn the speed of the college game. This is a much bigger challenge than some realize."
In response to a question about whether he could see an improved attitude by the defense between the time he enrolled as a freshman and now, Doug answered:
"Very definitely. We are so much more experienced and confident now. We see great things ahead for us if we keep working hard.
With the large number of recruiting prospects each year who hope for early playing time, perhaps Pilcher's perspective on redshirting might be beneficial for them:
"I thought I wanted to play as a freshman too, but I weighed around 230 and soon discovered the college game was too big a jump from high school for me to be ready. I really benefited from the redshirt year. Even then, I wasn't totally comfortable out on the field."
Doug is now a muscular 265 and is glowing in his tribute to Strength & Conditioning coach Lou Hernandez. This winter, Hernandez divided the players into six teams and had them compete against one another in a variety of strength, conditioning and agility drills. Pilcher was humble in the fact he participated on the winning team. But given the strong motivation of the whole team to improve themselves, Pilcher must have done well during the S & C Challenge.
Defensive end has more depth now than in current years, but Pilcher didn't seem fearful of the increased competition. In fact, he appeared to appreciate the overall improvement of the defense and acted like someone who had every expectation of remaining in the starting lineup.
He will miss graduated defensive tackle Josh Norris but was not concerned about replacements:
"Josh Norris was a great leader, and he will be missed. But Dave Lindquist is doing a fine job at that spot. There are some good freshmen entering, and they will have an opportunity to compete for playing time because we are a little thin there right now. It will be up to them to come in to fall camp in top shape and ready to compete."
Most teams place their best offensive linemen at left tackle. Since Pilcher normally plays opposite that tackle, he faces some top athletes. Among them is possible first round NFL draft pick Joe Thomas out of Wisconsin. Pilcher's thoughts on the encounter:
"Thomas is a great player as his high NFL rating attests. He deserves the recognition he receives. But I felt I held my own against him."
Perhaps the greatest individual play Pilcher made this past season was a bull rush that pushed Michigan State's left tackle back into quarterback Drew Stanton. While still striving to push past the tackle, Pilcher got a big right paw free and grabbed Stanton by his right throwing arm and pulled it down. The ball tumbled loose and was recovered by the Illini, but it was ruled an incomplete pass. Pilcher watched tape of the play afterward and is still convinced he forced the fumble. Regardless of the call, he made a truly great play.
We asked what players might be ready to make a big jump in their play, but Doug was protective of his teammates and reluctant to single out anyone. When pressed, he felt that defensive end Derek Walker and defensive tackle have a chance to play pro ball and are both looking good.
A balky tape recorder prevents us from sharing more of Doug Pilcher's quotes, but he impressed us with his friendly personality, his obvious brightness, and his humility. It was also obvious we were talking with a maturing upperclassman and not a raw rookie.
Doug Pilcher is a player to watch as he continues to improve. And the best part is he still has three more years of eligibility. He is likely to be an anchor for the Illinois defensive line for some time to come. With players like this, the future is bright indeed.
We thank Doug for taking the time to talk with us, and we wish him the best of luck throughout his Illini career.