Chris Norwell has witnessed many changes at Illinois. A graduate of Anderson high school in Cincinnati, Ohio, Chris was recruited by former Illini coach Ron Turner as a tight end. But a lack of quality in the defensive front forced Illini coaches to switch him to defensive tackle. And then, Turner was replaced by Ron Zook, who brought with him new schemes and a new defensive line coach.
Fortunately, Norwell is a versatile athlete who played both offense and defense in high school and was also agile enough to garner scholarship interest in basketball. In fact, he is his high school's all-time leading scorer and rebounder.
The switch to defense was difficult for him at first because he toiled in relative obscurity on a defense that was rated one of the worst in college football under Turner. The 6'-6" Norwell weighed only 250 pounds when he arrived on campus as a freshman, and even with a redshirt year he needed significant weight room work to gain the strength and size needed to wrestle with all the 300 pound offensive linemen he must face every game.
Despite this, Chris was named a freshman All-American in 2004. And he has grown and improved every year since. Now, Norwell is a 305 pounder with NFL potential. And he is finally playing on a defensive unit that expects to be good. He is enjoying his last spring practices and looking forward to his final collegiate season.
"This is my last spring ball, so it is the one I'll remember the most. This is the time where we can improve and remember as we go into next fall. Our number one goal now as a team is to get this thing going in the right direction into summer and then into fall camp. If we do that we will have a great chance of coming out against Missouri and really showing some people."
Every team needs senior leadership, and Norwell gladly accepts that role.
"You definitely have to do that. There are a lot of young guys on the team, and you've got to be the one who steps up. They look to you for support. You have to provide an example for them."
How are the young players performing this spring? We understand there are some good young defensive ends.
"Yes, the young guys are doing great right now. The d-line is really going after it. Jerry Brown was a redshirt last year, and he's having a great spring. He gets tons of pressure on the quarterback, and he is only going to get better every day."
Chris Norwell will miss Josh Norris, his tackle mate from last season who is one of only two departed seniors on the defense. But he is happy with the way Dave Lindquist is playing in Norris' spot.
"Yes, Dave Lindquist is doing a great job. He played last year and did a great job. He's a fumble machine. Dave's a good player. He's always around the ball. Mike Ware is working in at the second string, and he's doing a great job too. I'm really satisfied with the d-line right now. It takes time getting over not having "Buckshot" (Josh Norris) out here. He did a great job."
Does Chris see the Illini garnering more wins this year?
"Yes, definitely. We just need to be more consistent. I think that was our problem last year. We'd be playing good ball and then we'd drop down a few plays. We just need consistent energy and focus, and we will be a good defense."
Speaking at the conclusion of Saturday's scrimmage at the Irwin indoor practice facility, Norwell was asked if he agreed the defense played as well as it seemed to observers.
"It was good for the most part. There were a few ups and downs. Every game has its ups and downs. It's just good to get out here and scrimmage."
Besides his hopes for the team, Norwell has some personal goals for his final season as an Illini.
"I always want to get my sacks and TFL's (tackles for loss) up. That's always important to me. The more I can give to the team, the better we have a chance of winning."
Is there a renewed optimism on the team this year?
"I can't wait because I think this team can be something special. We're becoming a lot closer, and this is our time to really get out there and show what Illinois football is all about."
Is he practicing anything specifically this spring to improve?
"I'm just giving it my all every day. Just trying to improve each day. Hopefully, it will pay off this fall."
Has there been an attitude change on the team under Coach Zook compared with the Ron Turner years?
"When Coach Zook came in here, it's just a different attitude we got from the head coach. He's intense and he brings it out on the field. I also think our defensive coordinator Vince Okruch is doing a great job. He's got us fired up this spring."
Will the confidence gained from last season carry over to this year?
"Oh, yes, definitely. We didn't lose that many people so it will definitely carry over to the fall. And it did carry over from the season. We just have to keep on building."
Some people categorize defensive linemen in simplistic terms such as a one-technique tackle, two-technique tackle, etc. How would he classify himself?
"We play several different techniques. We play sides so it varies depending on the call and the formation from the offense. But we are not limited to just one style."
Does the fact he is taller than most defensive tackles cause him problems as offensive linemen try to cut him down with blocks to his legs?
"For the most part they don't really go for my legs, unless there's a pass or something. It helps being a tall defensive tackle. I've got a lot of leverage getting off blocks. It is definitely not a hindrance."
Is Chris prepared to be a teacher for the four freshmen defensive tackles coming in this fall?
"They're going to come in, and they're probably going to be great guys. So if they listen to what Coach (Tom) Sims and Coach Okruch say they're going to be well prepared this fall."
Some have projected Norwell as a possible NFL draftee. Is that one of his goals?
"I come out here every day trying to get better, so we'll see what happens after next fall. But that's a long time from now. I'll just work hard and try to prove myself, and then see what opportunities I have."
Would you accept a move to offensive line in the pros if necessary?
"I don't care, I'll do whatever it takes, you know. I'm not really worried about that right now."
Chris is majoring in Speech Communications, but his plans for life after football are uncertain.
"I haven't put much thought into my future because I have been working so hard on football. I think I might want to get into coaching also. I definitely want to keep football in my future."