Michael Hoomanawanui has continued to improve as a football player. Always a strong blocker, he has made himself into a receiving threat as well. The big tight end has now added leadership responsibilities, to the team's benefit.
Hoomanawanui and other upperclassmen leaders got together and set goals for the 2009 Illinois team. One of the first orders of business was getting the entire team into the best shape possible.
"I remember talking with Coach Lou (Hernandez, Strength and Conditioning Coach)," Hoomanawanui stated after the first fall practice. "He asked some of the older guys, some of the leaders on the team, what did we have to do? And we all came back collectively with the fact we had to get back to where we were two years ago.
"I wouldn't say our workouts were easier last year, but they weren't what they were two years ago. So he really got on us to try to push our limits both mentally and physically. Everyone had a great summer. As a team, we came together through all the workouts. Hopefully, it will translate into a good season."
The Illini dealt well with previous failure by overcoming odds and going to the Rose Bowl in 2007. But dealing with success can be just as difficult.
"Yes, very hard. People don't realize, it's hard to win a football game. You have to go out there every Saturday and be flawless. It's a hard thing. We had a lot of young guys. We don't want to use that as an excuse, but the guys who came in after the Rose Bowl think it's easy now. They hadn't gone through the bad seasons like we did. Last year, hopefully they got a taste of that. You can't go straight to California. You have to put the work in."
The 2008 season was a big disappointment for everyone. A losing season and no bowl bid was difficult to stomach, but it helped provide incentive to work harder. Illini players don't want that pain again this year.
"No, we can't do that. It was a long offseason. Watching everyone else play in the bowl games, and then spring ball and the summer. We have a real bad taste in our mouths. We can't wait to get to Camp Rantoul to take care of ourselves and then hopefully take down Mizzou."
The Bloomington native is happy with new offensive coordinator Mike Schultz, who is also his tight ends coach. Has he changed the offense much?
"Coach Schultz brought a few new wrinkles, but we kept everything else the same. It's nice personally for me having him as Offensive Coordinator and tight ends coach. Things are pretty personal with him, and he's a real good coach.
"Coach (Joe, offensive line coach) Gilbert and Coach Schultz got together, and we're working on some new things as far as meeting together and being on the same page. I think it's gonna help out alot."
There is experience and talent at every offensive position. Hoomanawanui is excited about the possibilities both in the passing game and run game.
"We were doing 7 on 7 this summer. Juice (Williams) hit me, hit Daniel (Dufrene), hit Jeff (Cumberland), (Jarred) Fayson, Duvie (Chris Duvalt), Rejus (Arrelious Benn). It was exciting to see that, moving the ball around.
"All these veteran backs we have with Ford, Dufrene, Pollard. We have this Justin Green coming in, and he worked his butt off this summer. He reminds me of a little Rashard (Mendenhall) the way he's built, the way he runs. It will be interesting to see how he can help us out.
"It's amazing to see how many weapons we have. But right now, it's all potential. We've got to translate that to Saturdays. We're working hard out here, and we'll be all right."
Does the 6'-5", 270 pounder have professional aspirations?
"Yes. Coming here, I didn't know what my plan was. I knew I'd be playing here at the University of Illinois. After that, I wasn't sure. Working with these coaches, working with the staff, Lou and all them, they put me in a position to do that.
"I'm gonna go through this season and see what happens, put my goals aside and put team goals first. Everyone else can reach their own conclusions. It would be a dream come true to play on Sundays. I've just got to keep working, and things will fall into place."
A true team leader puts the needs of the team over the self, and Hoomanawanui is doing that. Even when asked about first opponent Missouri, his thoughts remain focused on Illinois.
"We haven't got them since we've been here. Obviously, that's in the back of our heads. But we've got to take care of ourselves first."