Evan Frierson is a man on the spot Saturday. When Illinois travels to Columbus to face the Buckeyes, Frierson will be starting his first college game. The middle linebacker must replace the big shoes of Martez Wilson. He is aware of the awesome responsibility entrusted to him.
"It's been a pretty big week for me. I have to step up with Martez being down. Martez is a great player, and he'll be hard to replace with his speed and athleticism. I have to come in, carry out my assignments and do the best I can do and help my team get this W.
"I'm excited because everybody dreams to start in college, especially D-1 at the Big 10 level. I have to bring my A game every chance I get. Come out here every day to practice and work hard, get in the film room and do the best I can do."
Does he feel overwhelmed with the assignment?
"I wouldn't say it's overwhelming. It's football. I've been playing football my whole life. It's just everything is different in terms of getting everything down and figuring out their personnel and everything like that.
"I don't feel like I'm being thrown to the fire. The coaches said I was ready. I've got to step up, and I'm doing everything I can to do my best."
Frierson played briefly in the Illini's first two games, so some of the nervousness has been alleviated. But the 105,000 raucus fans greeting him at the Horseshoe will be a major challenge.
"I had a few snaps in the ISU game and the Missouri game. This is my first real game starting. It's a lot different than high school with the crowd and everything, but I'm excited because I get to play in front of a lot of people. I'm more excited than nervous."
The H.D. Woodson product out of Washington, D.C., played before small crowds in high school.
"In high school, the biggest crowd I played against was when I played against Antonio James's high school (Massillon, Ohio). I think there were like 17,000 people at the game. So playing against bigger crowds is more exciting, especially when it's your own crowd."
Frierson was forced to redshirt his freshman year when his high school transcripts were late arriving at the NCAA Clearinghouse. The delay forced him to miss all of Camp Rantoul 2008, the time when much teaching occurs. Illinois coach Ron Zook explains what happened.
"We've said it all camp, if you go back and look at camp last year, and it's not his fault, but he did not go through camp. H.D. Woodson was building a new school, and it was hard to get the records to the Clearinghouse. Spring football was really his first start at us coaching him in the system."
Frierson was understandably disappointed by his misfortune.
"It was very frustrating. Being away from home and then waiting, waiting, waiting, and nothing was happening. And then when I missed camp, I already knew I was expected to redshirt. So I just took the time to focus on my grades and do everything I can to improve as a student. It was tough though."
Despite the late start, Zook feels Frierson has promise.
"He is probably just as natural a linebacker as any of them. He's gotten better and better and continues to improve. We've said it all through camp and in the first two weeks of the season, he's just a guy that continues to get better.
"Football is a game of reaction. When you are thinking, you slow down. When you react and just let your God-given ability take over it works. He is going to be a fine player."
The 6'-2", 225 pounder made slow but steady progress throughout the spring. He says that process has continued since then.
"I've always been a physical linebacker, but I'm a little more physical than I used to be. My reads are better. I see things I didn't see in spring. I think I've improved a lot since spring. I've been doing very good on my pass coverage. I should have no problems there."
Martez Wilson remains close to the team, and he is an excellent role model and teacher for the youngster.
"I've been talking to Martez a lot. He's been out here and helps me with certain things. If I've got a question, I go to him because he has the most experience of the linebacker corps. He gives me tips on certain things. It does help alot coming from him because he played against O-State last year. He knows what to expect."
Frierson's other defenders have his back. He knows he's not alone on the field.
"Yes. Donsay Hardeman, he's a leader of our defense too, and Ian Thomas, they let me know that I've got to step up and that I have big shoes to fill. I feel like these last few practices I've shown I handle responsibility well."
Frierson understands what his first and foremost responsibility is when facing the powerful Ohio State Buckeyes.
"As far as the linebackers are concerned, we've got to stop the run. We can't let them run."
Frierson and his coaches say he's ready. But Zook offers a cautionary tone to remind fans not to expect too much too soon.
"I think the first time he goes out there, he'll play like a freshman, like everyone does."