After spending last fall on the scout team, Justin Staples is enjoying spring ball and a chance to get some significant playing time.
"It's a good feeling. I redshirted last year, so it's good to be back in the groove and be out there hitting. It's good to be out there competing."
The product of St. Edward High School in Lakewood, Ohio, benefitted from sitting out a year.
"Yeah, it helped me alot. The defense is a lot different than I played in high school, so it's given me time to learn the defense. So now I can compete."
Staples began his Illini career as a weakside linebacker, and he has now switched positions. It has required an adjustment period.
"In high school, I played a little bit of weakside linebacker and a little bit of defensive end. Coming here was my first chance to play weakside linebacker in a defense like this. So now I'm at strongside linebacker. It takes awhile to learn all that stuff."
The rangy 6'-4" athlete has also appreciated the value of the Strength & Conditioning program at Illinois.
"I've gained about 20 pounds since I came up here. I played at about 215 and I'm at 235 right now. And my strength has gone up alot. I didn't power clean in high school, but I'm now in the 300 club. When I got with Coach Lou (Hernandez), my bench press went up about 60 pounds too.
"I definitely feel a lot more powerful. Working with the cleans has made me feel a lot more explosive. Just like with my running form, the stuff we've been doing with Coach Zack (Womack) and Coach Lou, everything's been going good."
The SAM or strongside linebacker lines up over the tight end, so the extra strength and power are necessary.
"Yeah, Coach Lou's really prepared me for that with my bench and my squat going up. Going against those guys is the least of my worries. Before at weakside linebacker, I was going against big tackles. Some tight ends are closer to my size."
Justin and the other linebackers are all being given an equal chance to earn a position for fall.
"We're all gonna have a real good chance to learn the defense quickly just because we're gonna get so many reps. Coach (Dan) Disch is trying out a bunch of guys at different positions. We don't know who's gonna be ready yet, so he's trying to get everybody ready just so we will have a lot of guys ready once the season comes around."
Staples spoke without hesitation about his main assests as a linebacker.
"I think my biggest assets are being physical, getting to the ball with speed, and number one being quick. I know I'm not gonna win every play, but I will do everything I can to win every play and help my team out."
He also had a ready answer for what he needs to work on the most.
"I want to work on my run reads, and also my pass reads."
The Big Ten Network did a segment on Justin Staples for its "The Journey" series. He was shown helping get out the vote among fellow students prior to last November's election. He enjoyed both opportunities.
"The Journey was a great experience. It's something I'm not gonna ever be able to forget. They followed us around to see how the season went, and it was a great experience for everybody.
"It was my first election, being able to vote. I was just making sure throughout the whole thing I was following it and watching everything so I would vote for the right person."
Staples has a definite academic goal in mind for his college career and beyond. He wants to continue a family tradition.
"My major is sociology. I want to get into Criminal Justice. If I do that, I will be the fourth generation in my family in Criminal Justice. My great great grandfather down to my grandfather were in the Chicago Police Department. So that's what I want to get into as well."