Walk-on Fullback Becker Has Found His Place

Illinois boasted one of the top 2008 football recruiting classes in the country, and 12 newcomers have seen the field already this fall. But one of those is not on scholarship. For that matter, fullback Zach Becker wasn't even recruited by Division 2 schools let alone Big Ten schools.

The St. Joseph-Ogden product wasn't expecting to see the field this early in his college career, but he has started on the kickoff and kickoff return teams and has seen time at fullback as well. He had confidence in himself, but not everyone thought he made the right decision to walk on at Illinois.

"Most people from back home are following it pretty close and go to every game. It's going real well. I really didn't expect to play the first year, especially not on offense, just special teams. It's surprising a lot of people, but a lot of people knew it was going to happen also."

Watching Becker perform on the field, it is hard to believe he had no serious college scholarship offers. But it appears Illinois will be the beneficiary of the oversight.

"I got offered some money by D-3 schools, but D-2 and up everybody talked to me about walking on. Eastern, Illinois State were saying walkon. I got looked at a little bit by Ball State, but they didn't have much interest. I thought a little bit about Princeton, but that didn't get very far.

"I don't know if I'm underrated or not, but I'm glad I had a chance to come here and get a little playing time. If I was going to walk on, I was going to do it here because I've always wanted to play here."

Perhaps Illini coaches remembered how Eastern Illinois overlooked Zach, for they ran a play specifically to get him a touchdown against the Panthers. The pass was slightly underthrown and thus failed.

"I had a chance to catch a touchdown pass but couldn't grab ahold of it. It's really cool coming in here and being able to play right away. Like I said, I was planning on playing special teams but maybe not second game of the year, and definitely not on offense right away. But being a freshman walkon, it's really cool to be playing right away."

Becker has earned the playing time. Early in Camp Rantoul, he showed the strength, quickness and aggressiveness to be a good lead blocker as a fullback in the spread offense. And he demonstrated good hands for catching passes.

"I was told by a lot of people coming in that it was a lot faster, and everybody said it was a lot different. Compared to 3A high school football, everybody was walking pretty much. The first few practices, I just tried to go as fast as I can. Now, I'm kind of adjusted to the speed, so it's pretty natural to me now."

Rahkeem Smith is still listed as the starter at fullback, a position that is not used on every offensive play. But running back coach Reggie Mitchell is impressed with Becker's progress.

"Becker for a walkon has done a great job. If he had to go in a game, I wouldn't hesitate to put him in."

The 6'-2" athlete is a hard worker who has developed his body and made himself into a college player who could compete with top rated teammates. Being a walkon helped inspire him to work even harder.

"For a freshman, I'm pretty heavy. I'm about 240, so I was pretty big for most freshmen at fullback. And my strength is there with all scholarship guys, so it has really helped to come in and be the same size as most of the guys. I worked out the most in high school. I was always the biggest on the field, but it's a lot different now."

Zach is ambitious and has high goals for his college career.

"Obviously, to become a starter and play a big part in every game. I'm overjoyed with all the playing time I'm getting already, but by junior or senior year or even next year, I want to be playing a major role in the offense and do everything I can."

He knows he has room for improvement and is already looking forward to the offseason when he can continue his development.

"In the offseason, I'll work really hard on strength and my speed and quickness. And I'll work on getting my pads down on blocking and keep my feet going right. Other than that, I'll just keep doing what I've been doing."

Becker became somewhat of a celebrity after the Eastern game because his throwback jersey fetched a large price at auction. The bidding was intense for awhile, but it was primarily two people who wanted jersey #41.

"Yeah, it was my mom mainly. I think she actually talked to the other guy, and he said he was gonna quit bidding when he was told I was playing here. He was a walkon here in the '90's. He said we could have it. He was really glad I was playing as a freshman and wished me luck. That was really nice of him to do that."

The Kinesiology/Physical Therapy major knows what he wants to accomplish. Based on his rapid development and early playing time, he may soon become more valuable to the Illini football program than some of his more highly touted peers.

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