Veteran Fulton Important Anchor on the O-Line

Last year, the Illini football team was desperate to find a quality left tackle, the most important position on the offensive line. But their fears were allayed when they tested defensive end Xavier Fulton there. "X" took over the job and helped make the Illini offense powerful.

Once somewhat underweight for the position, Fulton is now a 6'-5", 295 pounder with a year's experience. While he had above average speed for a defensive lineman, he is extremely fast and quick for an offensive lineman. He needed guidance from his fellow linemen last year, but he is now ready to compete for All-Big Ten and a possible NFL contract.

"I think the biggest difference for me this year over last year is confidence. I know what I have to do in relationship to the other guys, and Martin (O'Donnell) is not gonna have to hold my hand. It was comfortable knowing he was next to me."

The offensive line functions through unity, maturity and continuity year to year. Despite the graduation loss of O'Donnell and Akim Millington, "X" sees no dropoff this season.

"Now I have (Eric) Block (next to me), so we'll be ok on the left side. It will be a huge help, just knowing that everyone on the line has played a set amount of snaps."

Fulton helped pave the way for 3338 rushing yards last season, and he believes the Illini can be just as good despite losing their All-American tailback.

"Rashard (Mendenhall) was a key weapon for us. He brought another level of speed and athleticism to our running back unit. We have two or three capable running backs who are gonna have to fill his shoes, and I think they'll do a pretty good job.

"Hopefully, the young guys learned a good number of techniques from Rashard when he was here, so hopefully they'll be able to be as good or better as Rashard."

Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley wants to balance run and pass, and the Homewood-Flossmore product sees improvement in the passing game.

"We're trying to open our drop-back pass game more. We worked on that throughout the spring. We'll put it all together in camp and see what works best for this season."

And he is especially encouraged by Juice Williams' continued improvement and maturation.

"Juice has been more confident in his calls, and he has been way more accurate. He's just a better all-around player."

Xavier goes against the best pass rushers in the Big Ten, so competing with the outstanding Illini defensive ends daily in practice prepares him well.

"'A lot' doesn't come close to how much work they give us. Our defensive line unit, there's 18 of them now. They're gonna wear down offensive lines come time for the season."

Interviewed after the spring game, Xavier was clearly exhausted.

"They had four guys rotating. I had nothing left after awhile. They actually have a good mixture of guys that can play run or pass. After awhile, I just need a breather."

Having begun his career on the defensive line, Fulton understands what the d-line goes through working under Coach Tom Sims daily in practice, and he sees positive results.

"They're told to go 150 miles an hour every play, and that's the way they practice. Coach Sims actually has it set up that by the time you get to group periods, it feels like the fourth quarter already. You're tired and running on fumes, but you learn to push the wall farther back. It's a very effective technique."

Xavier Fulton is a thinking man's football player, so his opinions have value. He believes the Illini have talent to take over for him once he graduates.

"There's a couple really good candidates. Potentially, Ryan Palmer can move over. Craig Wilson redshirted last year, and he's learning the ropes, learning the plays. He's doing a really good job.

"Actually, my backup (Wilson) is about twice the size of me. He's fast for a big guy. He's got me by about 20 pounds. We haven't had our official race. If we raced in the 100 meters, I'd probably beat Craig by a couple yards. But in the 40, maybe I'd have a step or two on him.

"I've worked with (freshman) Corey Lewis a couple of times. He has some natural ability. He's so similar to Jon Asamoah, it's kind of scary. He could be something in a couple of years."

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