Martin O'Donnell was an All-American offensive lineman at Downers Grove South High School, helping his team win the Class 8A state championship in 2001. He then enrolled at the University of Illinois where, after a redshirt season, he was named a Freshman All-American.
Like many offensive linemen, O'Donnell has toiled in relative obscurity. But despite that, and the fact that the result haven't yet come on the field, O'Donnell cherishes his time at the University of Illinois. Even if it is all too short.
"It's kind of crazy, I mean it's gone really fast," O'Donnel said. "It's the kind of thing where you always hear the older guys say it goes fast and just going through your first year that doesn't make sense at all because everything seems slow as molasses. It's kind of crazy to think of all the players who have been here before have all now moved on."
Does he now feel a need to assume a leadership role on the team?
"Definitely. I've been fortunate enough to be around a number of guys in the o-line who have been leaders. Duke Preston, Matt Maddox last year, Bucky Babcock, Sean Bubin before that. So there's been a lot of good leaders on the o-line and now it's my time. I'm a fifth year senior and have the most experience with the offense so I feel I've got to step up, I've got to try to get the guys going."
Martin must oversee an offensive line that has some experience among the starters but is otherwise young and needs to develop more consistency and depth. What does think of his teammates' progress?
"I think we're really fortunate. The guys are coming along really quickly and our new offensive line coach Wolf is bringing those guys along really well. Young guys are going to make mistakes and that's part of it. It's no excuse. Everyone's being held to the same standard, everyone's being held accountable and I think that's been working so far."
Offensive line play requires close teamwork and constant communcation to be effective. Does the number of inexperienced players in the line hurt that communication?
"Communication doesn't have to suffer. You might just have to take more time after the play and talk to the guy, or before the play, just communicating constantly. That's what offensive line play is all about...communication. As long as we're communicating constantly everyone understands what's going on and everybody is just learning as we go."
O'Donnell was slowed by injury his sophomore year. But offensive line starters play most of the way each game, so sometimes you must just ignore the pain and play. Even if it reduces your effectiveness.
"Yeah, I sprained my ankle three times, two of them high ankle sprains. It's no excuse though. At times it slowed me up sophomore year. I'm not the fastest guy to begin with. It's just the kind of thing where you're expected to play and there's a lot of guys out there counting on you, so as soon as I could go I was ready to go."
O'Donnell enjoyed an injury-free season last year, and he considers it fortunate that he has stayed healthy up to this time.
"It helps to remain healthy since injuries always set you back. Not only football wise but also in the weight room. Just having that consistency of being able to lift with the team, being able to practice all the time really helps."
Martin has experienced two different styles of offense in his Illini career, Ron Turner's West Coast offense and Ron Zook's Spread offense.
"They're definitely different, just going from a pro style offense with a power running game when I first got here to the spread now."
And he has studied under three different offensive line coaches. Harry Hiestand was his line coach under Turner. Ed Warriner and now Eric Wolford have worked for Zook. He agreed that Hiestand was emotionally intense, Warriner more laid back and Wolford more fiery. "Yes, he's very fiery", said O'Donnell.
"It's different coaching styles, but I don't think it's been that difficult an adjustment. It's actually a good thing because you have to keep proving yourself over and over again for a new coach and a new staff, which keeps the fire going within you. I feel I have really benefited from all the coaches that I've had. Seeing three different coaching perspectives on the offensive line definitely helps."
What are the main differences between the techniques needed with the two offenses?
"The main difference when Coach Zook and his staff first got here was a lot more shotgun and a lot more quarterbacks setting up a lot deeper in the pocket, which makes a big difference in the pass blocking knowing the quarterback is a lot deeper. In the West Coast offense, the quarterback may take a five-step drop, maybe a seven-step drop once in awhile, but a lot of passes were three-step drops where you just give it up quickly. Offensive line play is offensive line play. Run blocking, zone blocking and pass blocking are all pretty similar, it's just a matter of tweeking."
J. Leman and other linebackers say they often read the offensive guards to predict the next offensive play. What can offensive guards do to prevent becoming too predictable?
"The biggest thing is you have to have the same stance on every play because one of the biggest things linebackers will try to do is read your stance. If you are light on your hand they will know it is a pass, or if you start rolling a little, they will start calling out pull which makes the blocks for the other guys on the line really hard. So you just have to try to be consistent in what you are doing. You get to the point where you can even give dummy calls to throw them off sometimes. Play action helps a ton."
Does Martin recall any opponents who have been especially difficult to block?
"That's hard to say. Specific players don't really stand out for me. The whole Ohio State defense last year stands out in my mind because everyone on that team was good and fast, and they knew exactly what they were doing. Playing in the Big Ten week in and week out is tough. Even some of our nonconference opponents like Cal out there, they had some really good players. It's kind of a blur."
With Illini fortunes now on the upswing again, Martin O'Donnell has lived through many changes in attitude and confidence level in his years on campus.
"For the whole team, I think the confidence level has just been kind of a complete 180. I don't think everyone walked around thinking they were losers, but sometimes guys would have a lot of trouble. We were going through 1-11, two two-win seasons the last couple years. But guys have a swagger now. Offensively, we're trying to get confidence in what we are doing. Before I think we believed we could win, but now we KNOW we can win.
"After last season being so close, I mean we lost four games by seven points or less. Just being in those close games, taking Ohio State, the #1 team at the time, down to the wire, that just gave our team immense confidence knowing that we can compete with those guys and we can beat them.
"It just gives the young guys on our team confidence. That's one of the biggest things. If you are not confident, if you are not sure what you are doing, you are going to play slow and not going to play as hard just because you're thinking. We now have guys around here who are pretty confident, so that's good."
Martin is graduating in May with a major in history and speech communications. Besides the possibility of a pro career, what are his future plans?
"I'm starting grad school this summer and will study Human Resource Education, the same thing J Leman is in right now. I am going to try the business world, see how it goes. I would like the chance to play pro ball, but I'm not going to put all my eggs in that basket.
"Right now I'm just focused on this year. I want to get to a bowl game more than anything. Everyone wants that. It's been a long five years and it would be great to go out with a bowl."