Pennsylvanian Hubie Graham played extensively behind Michael Hoomanawanui for the Illinois offense in 2008. It was a necessity due to a lack of depth. He admits to having problems on the field, but that is all behind him now.
"Last year was a struggle for me, believe me. The adjustment to the speed and everything. But working through it and keeping myself positive, it really paid off now as a sophomore."
As is true for all those who receive early playing time, Graham's learning curve has sped up.
"I feel like I've really progressed a lot from last year in almost every aspect, but most importantly mentally. I've really grasped the game now, it has slowed down for me alot. I know my assignments, and I can really be productive out on the field."
That is especially important since new Offensive Coordinator and tight ends coach Mike Schultz plans to utilize his tight ends to a greater extent than the past.
"The tight ends are really happy since he got here. We really got more involved. Coach Schultz is really looking to use us out on the field."
Graham also appreciates having Schultz as his tight end coach.
"It's definitely a huge advantage. Coach Schultz is a great coach. He brings a lot of intensity to the meeting room, and he really teaches us the game in every aspect. Not just our assignments, but what everybody is doing so we know and can break down the game."
Now that the Illini have some depth at tight end, they can use two at a time in some formations.
"Me and Michael work real good together. We kind of know each other's moves. There's a lot of teamwork out there when we're in the wing set. It's a real big advantage working together last year when Coach Schultz uses the two tight end set.
"Both of us are gonna get a lot of opportunities to catch the ball. But we also have a real important role on the team when it comes to blocking. We have important blocks on the perimeter, so I've really got to do my job. The catches come second."
Illinois tried desperately to get Graham the ball last fall. They knew he needed to get a catch under his belt to gain needed confidence. After a few frustrating drops, he finally got his wish.
"Yeah, it was a great relief. When it's dry I can do it the whole time, but I just wanted to show what I can do. So it really felt good when I got those couple catches against Indiana. It took a weight off my shoulders.
"I'm pumped. I had a few drops last year, but now I'm playing with confidence. I'm adjusted now, and I'm ready to catch some balls."
Graham is also pleased to have quality depth at tight end for a change. Besides upgrading the position and giving Illini coaches reason to use them more, it helps reduce the practice load as more bodies can take turns in the drills.
"We have a lot more depth this year, which really helps me and Oh-Oh (Hoomanawanui). It gives us a little break. With me and Oh-Oh having more experience, we can help Justin (Lattimore) out. We all work really good together. Zach Becker is out also, and we all work good together, we know the schemes. It's a real advantage to have the other guys there."
The 6'-3", 245 pounder has always been a hard worker in the weight room, but Illinois strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez has helped him improve his athleticism.
"We had a great offseason in the weight room. I dropped a lot of body fat while my weight stayed the same. My strength is through the roof. You gain strength, you gain speed, and I'm just trying to take advantage."
Graham is excited about the possibilities for 2009.
"I have a great feeling about this year and this team. You can feel the chemistry in the locker room, the love that everybody has for each other. There are no cliques or things like that. As a whole, we work to help each other. I'm looking forward to a great season."