Eric Block went through Senior Day last fall believing his Illinois career was over. He had missed most of his sophomore year with an injury, but he wasn't optimistic he would be granted an extra year of eligibility. When he was, he was pleasantly surprised to say the least.
"I'm just excited to have the opportunity. I didn't know I was gonna get one. I got the call right before I went on winter break. I thought I was retired for two weeks when Coach Wolf (Eric Wolford) called me up and said the NCAA approved my redshirt year.
"I've just been excited ever since. This being my fourth spring ball, you'd think I'd be dragging. But I'm just happy to have the opportunity to do it again. It feels like the first one."
He didn't even mind the extra year of winter conditioning.
"Surprisingly, winter conditioning wasn't a drag either. It's usually a terrible, terrible time. But it gives you a new appreciation, a new light. I really appreciate being able to do it again. The opportunity to play football another year, especially at the University of Illinois, is special. And I get to do my senior year all over again. Not many people get to say they had their senior year twice."
Switching positions from left guard to center was no problem for Eric either.
"I love guard. I love playing it, it was a challenge. And I think I did all right. But center's my natural position, at least I found out it was when I got here. It feels real comfortable to be at center."
Centers must be able to snap the ball to quarterbacks in the shotgun, and it is assumed they will do this perfectly every time. But Block's backups Tyler Sands, Ryan Sedlacek and Mike Garrity all had problems with consistency. Block remembers his early days trying to snap the ball.
"It's tough. A couple years ago, me and Ryan McDonald, when we first moved to center, both of us were just terrible. Neither of us could snap it, and Coach Zook was convinced there was a conspiracy and we were just trying to have bad snaps. It takes some time to get used to it and really get it down until you are comfortable with it. It takes time, they'll be ready."
The 6'-3", 290 pound graduate of Jesuit High School in New Orleans, Louisiana, is so happy to be playing football he probably would have accepted any offensive line coach. But he says the transition from Wolford to new coach Joe Gilbert has gone smoothly.
"It's been really easy. Coach Gilbert's a great coach. He's a stickler for technique, which you need. He's honest with us, and those are the two biggest things you need as an offensive line coach. You need someone who is brutally honest and someone who focuses on technique.
"It doesn't matter how talented you are. If your technique's not right, you're not gonna be very good. It's been great. He's exactly what you want in an offensive line coach.
"People on the offensive line love Wolf, but there's really been no grieving at all. As soon as Coach Gilbert came in, it was easy. He was a breath of fresh air. I've been through a couple coaches since I've been here (Ed Warriner and Eric Wolford), and it's been the easiest transition I've ever seen or been a part of."
Eric shares the view of other offensive linemen that Gilbert and new offensive coordinator Mike Schultz have helped to simplify the offense.
"A little bit. The terminology is simpler, which for me is a big thing. There's not as many things I need to worry about. I think I have more responsibility, but the terminology and the concepts are a little bit easier. And I think our playbook is a little bit smaller, which is nice. There's not as many plays, but we're getting good at the plays we run."
Seniors are expected to serve as team leaders. Having a second senior year gives Block a chance to improve on his leadership skills.
"Absolutely. I think last year being a senior and having a leadership role, I get to do it again and learn from my mistakes. I can improve on being a leader. I kind of have a different role now. I'm kind of the old man on the team, and I feel like I've been here forever. It definitely helps being a senior twice."
Eric Block is refreshingly open and honest in interviews. He has a good awareness of what went wrong last year and what needs to be done to correct it for this fall. He agrees there is increased intensity coming out of spring ball.
"It is. It's a different group of guys. A lot of people were disappointed how the season ended last year, and no one wants that to happen again. People are focused. It's a cliche, but we're hungry. We don't want anything like that to happen again.
"We're trying to get back to the way we were a couple years ago. We feel like we have a chip on our shoulder, and it's a different type of philosophy. You come out to practice different, even though there shouldn't be a difference.
"Last year was a growing process, but we're coming out every day like we have something to prove. That's how you get better."