Illinois struggled on the offensive line last year due to injuries to its best players. Two freshmen linemen were forced to play before their time, reducing the effectiveness of the unit. Among the injured was Ryan Palmer, the 6'-7", 310 pound right tackle who broke his foot and missed most of the season.
"It was tough going down the third game," Palmer remembers. "I rehabbed for 6 weeks. I came every day and worked, and I was allowed to come back for those last three games. So that was nice."
Palmer played at the end of the season, but he was not at full strength.
"No, I had surgery 6 weeks before. Western Michigan was the first game, and I was a little rusty. But I got back in the last game with Northwestern."
Palmer had something to prove in the offseason. Jeff Allen had played well for a freshman during his absence, and he is a future star. Palmer wanted to get his starting spot back, and he worked hard to achieve that goal.
"Yeah. Last spring was important for me to get back. This spring, I decided to fight back, keep my composure and get my spot back. Now I'm here."
Palmer played so well in the spring that Illini coaches were comfortable moving Allen to the important left tackle spot. That was a confidence booster for the junior.
"Yeah, that was nice to have. I'm glad the coaches have confidence in me and can trust me."
The Canton, Ohio, native has long arms, making it tough for him to gain strength quickly. The one blessing of his 2008 injury was that he had more time to work in the weight room. It paid off.
"I lifted every day when I was rehabbing, so my strength increased dramatically. It's always been tough for me in the weight room. I get my protein, 300 grams a day, and I work really hard in the weight room to get my strength so I can show it on the field. I've made some great strides, and I'm a part of this team."
Palmer is happy with new offensive line coach Joe Gilbert.
"Coach Gilbert is a great guy. He knows his stuff. He's very experienced. He's one of those guys who will yell at you, but he won't mean it really. He's a real technique guy, which is nice to have."
Like the rest of his team, Palmer bubbles over when thinking about the potential of the Illinois offense.
"It's exciting. Seeing the balls flying, the guys making plays, it's nice to have."
One of the Illini's deficiencies last fall was difficulty in short yardage situations. The line deservedly received some of the blame for that, but so did an inexperienced running back corps. Palmer thinks the running game will be much improved this year.
"We didn't have Rashard Mendenhall, who's a great running back. But now we've got Jason Ford, who I think can be even better. Last year, I think the problem was mentally we weren't there. Our team chemistry wasn't there. But we've changed that, and we should be a different team this year."
That chemistry issue starts with leadership. Palmer is excited about how the upperclassmen have taken responsibility for the success of the entire team.
"We had a great summer this year. Lou (Hernandez, strength and conditioning coach) pushed us to the limit. What I see different in this team is the leadership. We've seen guys come up, not coaches but players, and it's been a real big difference this summer. We'll show a big difference this year.
"I think there's even more leadership (than 2007). J Leman was a big leader two yeas ago when we went to the Rose Bowl. But I think this year more players have stepped up at their positions and are doing a good job."
Echoing feelings shared by all his teammates, Palmer is optimistic about the season ahead.
"I have high expectations for the 2009 season."