Sophomore lineman Jeff Allen heard the warnings throughout high school. Lose weight or waste your potential. He took the advice to heart, earned himself a scholarship to Illinois and is now a starter at the most important position on the offensive line.
"When you first start, you hear every coach telling you you have to stop overeating because you have the athleticism," Allen remembers. "And then, my uncle was my coach in high school, so he was on me hard about my weight.
"I just continued to work. And Coach kept telling me, 'You're getting better, you're getting better.' Eventually, it worked out. I've taken the mentality from high school to be the best I can be, and I'm gonna continue that throughout my entire career."
To that end, Allen is willing to try a variety of techniques to improve his body. He has made improvements even since last spring.
"Definitely. Lou (Strength and Conditioning Coach Lou Hernandez) has been working hard on me. I've been conditioning my body differently, doing different things, eating different things, yoga, all different kinds of conditioning.
"Yoga definitely helps me feel more flexible. My hips feel much looser, and I feel more mobile. I think it actually helped me grow an inch."
Allen began his career on the right side of the line, first at guard and then tackle. He was thrust into a starting job last year when Ryan Palmer broke his foot, and he held his own. Now an experienced sophomore, he was moved to the all-important left tackle job due to his mobility and athleticism. He likes the role.
"Being a left tackle is a totally different scenario. You are responsible for the quarterback in a whole different situation. You've got to protect his blind side so he can see his receivers."
The move required some adaptation, but Allen has responded nicely.
"As far as technique, it's a little bit of an adjustment. But I've adjusted so far, and I'll continue to get better."
Opponents' fastest, most aggressive defensive linemen play the right defensive end so they can speed toward the quarterback off the edge. Left tackles must be agile enough to block their path, and they need to be rangy with long arms to help push the speed rushers farther away from their intended path to the quarterback.
At 6'-4", Allen isn't as tall as some left tackles, but he makes up for it with long arms.
"My wingspan is the equivalent of someone 6'-8". So I'm good."
It takes a long time for most offensive linemen to develop the consistency needed for the position. But Allen believes his youthfulness will be no problem for him.
"I definitely feel I can be consistent. Sophomore is just a year. I feel like I'm an older guy now. I feel confident, I feel like I can play like an upperclassman. I was here since a year ago spring, so I feel like a junior."
Illini defensive ends have helped prepare the Chicago Martin Luther King product for what lies ahead.
"Doug Pilcher, Antonio James and Clay Nurse are all good d-ends. It's been a tough camp, competing with them. You're not gonna win every battle. The thing is, you've got to win more than you lose. That's what I try to do."
New offensive coordinator Mike Schultz brought a new perspective to the offense, but the overall effect on the offensive line was minimal.
"Personally, the changes affect the skill players more. We still run the same zone scheme."
Allen also has a new offensive line coach in Joe Gilbert, but that transition has also proceeded smoothly.
"Coach Gilbert is a great coach. He's been harping on me to get my technique, and I think it's gonna make me a much better player. I want him to keep on me still."
With everyone raving about the quality at the skill positions on the 2009 Fighting Illini football team, the offensive line wants to ensure openings for those skill people to display their ability.
"It's a great thing. I don't know if it puts pressure on us or not, but we've got to do our job. We've got a lot of skill around us, and we're gonna be much better this year.
It certainly gives him more incentive to play well.
"It makes me happy. It gives me a reason to block more, and more reason to get downfield and get extra blocks because I know guys can take it to the house every time."
The offensive linemen have developed great chemistry between them. Unity of purpose is essential for success.
"It's all up to the offensive line. I think this year we have a great group. We have experience, everyone has started thus far. I think we can continue to build on that.
"During the summer, we actually watched film together. And we watched movies together, we go bowling, we do yoga together. We've got to stick together in order to be great. All five of us have to be one."
Allen shares the view of the entire team that the 2009 Illini football team can have a special year.
"I feel like the team is confident and sure of themselves. It's like an energy, a big buzz around here. You can just tell everyone is looking forward to the first game and the rest of the season. So we can win a lot of games this year. I feel we have a good opportunity to be great."