Fulton Stabilizing Force For Terrific O-Line

The Illinois offensive line has improved greatly this year. It is playing aggressively as a unit, opening holes for running back Rashard Mendenhall and protecting Illini quarterbacks from getting pounded by opposing defenders on pass plays. The biggest question mark going into the season has become one of the team's biggest strengths thanks in part to Xavier Fulton.

Fulton has undergone a remarkable transformation from his days at Homewood-Flossmore high school. A consensus Illinois All-Stater, Xavier was impressive enough to start three games as a true freshman defensive end. His play gave rise to speculation he would be a four-year star and have a chance for a pro career.

By his sophomore season, Fulton was a fixture on the defensive line, that is until the Penn State massacre in the seventh game. It was in that game Xavier suffered a serious knee injury.

"My ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tore off my femur, taking some bone with it. It balled up inside my knee. I tore my meniscus on the outside, and a piece of the cartilage I tore went inside my knee too. So it was like a mess of cartilage and bone. It took me a long time to recover. It was pretty serious."

Any knee surgery requires months of rehabilitation, and there is always much pain and suffering during the process. For Fulton, he was still not back to full health a year later.

"Getting my quickness back was a problem last year. Moving side to side was very difficult. I could go straight ahead fairly well, but side to side was terrible."

He was tried at defensive tackle, but to no avail.

"I tried to make the best of it, I just didn't get a feel for it. It didn't help that I was about 250 pounds."

He undoubtedly questioned his football future when Coach Ron Zook and new offensive line coach Eric Wolford asked him to move over to offensive left tackle. He was reluctant to change at first, especially since offensive linemen need to weigh close to 300 pounds, but gradually he realized he had a new lease on life.

"I didn't really want to gain that much weight. I preferred to play defensive end still. I have a lot of my quickness back, and I owe a lot to Coach Lou (Hernandez) and the strength staff."

It isn't often a lineman is asked to eat all the nutritious food he wants, but Xavier was told to do just that. The strength staff helped insure he would keep his body fat down and his strength up. By fall camp, he was up over 290 pounds.

The rigors of camp and games have made it difficult to maintain the weight. "I've lost a couple of pounds," admits Xavier. "I'm down about 6 or 7."

His quickness for the position helps make up for his lack of bulk. He is humble about his performance up to now, and he is looking to make improvements in his game. But Illini quarterbacks have had their backsides protected throughout the season thanks to Fulton's excellent play.

"We had a few problems against Michigan. There was a lot of pressure on us. My line grades can be a lot better. We try to get better week after week. We try to give our quarterbacks more confidence that they will be safe in the pocket."

The Sociology major with a possible interest in broadcasting gets emotional thinking about all he has endured in the last two years.

"The last 2 years were very difficult. The season before last I was sitting at home watching the games. I was cheering my heart out, but there's nothing like playing it. Many times, I wondered if I would ever get back."

That is why Xavier Fulton was hugging his teammates after the big Penn State victory. That game finally put the past two years behind him and gave him renewed hope for the future. He now envisions a possible pro career as an offensive tackle, something he thought was impossible just last year. He also sees great things ahead for the Illini, and he expects to be a team leader next year.

"With the players Coach Zook is bringing in, there's no top, no limit on what we can do even next season."

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