Veteran McDonald "Blessed" To Be at Illinois

Senior leadership is essential for winning teams. Young players need role models who have been through the battles and can show them how to win. Four year starter Ryan McDonald has taken on that role with the Fighting Illini this year, especially along the offensive line.

Ryan was a second team All-Big Ten selection at center by the coaches and media last season. He is rated the fourth best lineman in the Big Ten and a preseason first-team All-Big Ten choice by The Sporting News and Athlon magazines. And he was selected the 2008 Anson Mount Playboy Scholar Athlete Award Winner. He wants to explain about the latest award.

"For those who are wondering, I'm wearing clothes. It was an honor and privilege. We got to go out to Arizona for a weekend. It was a wholesome thing, just the kids on the team hanging out and having a good time. It was a lot of fun.

"I was down there with Vontae (Davis) and had a great time. Vontae absolutely deserves to be there. He's a great player. I was that one guy who was there, not for my athletic prowess, but my academics. So I felt a little off, but it was cool being down there."

McDonald has a degree in Aerospace Engineering and has accumulated nearly a straight A average. But his football exploits are almost a match for his academic excellence. He always wanted to attend his parents' alma mater but was not highly recruited out of high school.

"I've been incredibly blessed to come here and play here. I got a chance, and I decided to just work as hard as I could and make everything out of it I could. I feel this was exactly the right place for me. I can't be happier.

"It was really where I wanted to go. I had to hold off to the end as I wasn't offered until my visit in late December. Despite all the waiting around, it's definitely been worth it."

Ryan is excited about the offensive line, for this year and beyond.

"I think you'll begin to see this as a trend. We'll lose older guys and gain younger guys that perhaps have less experience, but they're a lot more talented. Eric Block is stepping up for us at left guard, and it looks like Ryan Palmer will be our right tackle, and he's another young guy who'll shape up.

"There's always learning pains, but the guys played last year and they're doing great things. We expect a lot out of them. You're gonna see the line get more athletic as we go and old guys like me retire. It's looking up, and I'm really excited about what we're gonna do this year."

Ryan believes the Illini have a great deal yet to prove despite their success last year.

"I guarantee most of the country still thinks we are a one-and-done kind of team. It's on us to prove them wrong. I thought we did a good job of thriving in the spotlight last year. I hope the team has the same attitude and is still hungry. I have confidence we will be. We haven't arrived yet as a program. The Rose Bowl showed us that. We still have a long way to go."

McDonald likes the challenge of a difficult opening opponent, and the national exposure that goes with it.

"Absolutely. It's a great opportunity, a great way to start off the season. We're going to be in the national spotlight. It'll be televised all over the nation. We didn't really believe in ourselves at that point last year. This year we have a lot more confidence. We're not going out there hoping to play with them, we're going out there and play to win.

"That's what we need to do, and we're gonna start off the season on the right foot. A win would certainly mean we took a step in the right direction. Coach Zook has been preaching to us about how the seniors and older guys need to step up and make sure we don't take a step back from where we were before. We need to continue to work hard to grow and become a better team."

The Illini lost to Missouri last year, but it was a moral victory because they gained confidence as a team.

"It showed us that, despite everything that went wrong in that game, and there was a lot as we turned the ball over way too much and had some guys get hurt, we still had talent and we still can play. We didn't win, and that was a credit to them since they are a great team.

"But we could still move the ball and do things. We stopped them a couple of times when we needed to. It was a stepping stone, and we learned a little bit more about ourselves."

McDonald isn't guaranteeing victory against Missouri, but he has a quiet confidence about the game.

"You look at their scouting report, and everybody's a senior plus a couple juniors. We realized last year that we didn't execute some things very well. Part of that's a credit to them, but it's up to the coaches to get proper schemes that work and us to execute them. It'll be a challenge, and we'll just have to see what happens.

"They don't have any players that really stick out, but they all are athletic and will run to the ball. They play hard and are sound. We expect them to try a little bit of what USC did, but we'll see what happens. The first game of the year is always a guessing game. It makes it interesting, it makes it fun."

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