Aaron Gress transferred to Illinois from College Of The Sequoias second semester last year. He was tried at all three linebacker spots before settling at the SAM or stronside linebacker. The adjustment hasn't been easy.
"Yeah, it's a big transition, and I'm still trying to learn alot. I'm just getting a little better every day. But the transition is still pretty tough."
When fall practices began, he was still fighting for a second team berth. Little by little, he gained knowledge of the defense and trust of the coaching staff. Gress expressed pleasure at playing the game he loves.
"Yeah, getting a little pt is fun. I'm just gonna keep on working hard. All my hard work's paid off."
Gress developed a reputation as a special teams terror. He is frequently first downfield on kickoffs.
"I'm just trying to do what I can for the team. Whatever it is, special teams, defense, I just try to give as much as I can for the team."
When middle linebacker Martez Wilson was lost for the season with neck surgery, linebacker adjustments were necessary. Ian Thomas was ahead of Gress at SAM, but he finds himself in the middle more now. So when the Illini expect a running play, Gress has a chance to see the field.
Of course, the Illini play a nickel defense against spread teams, and the nickel back replaces the SAM.
"Yeah, we go alot of nickel, but that's not a problem. I just try to do my best when I'm in. It's still fun."
It was especially fun when the Illini went to a goal line stand against Michigan. Terry Hawthorne prevented a touchdown by running down a Michigan receiver at the one yard line. In a major momentum shift, the Illini stopped the Wolverines on all four plays, and Gress was a part of it.
"I was in on three of the four, second through fourth downs. Garrett (Edwards) got the last tackle (Gress was close), but on third down me and Walt Aikens were in on it. It was a good feeling to be on a goal line stand. Then the offense took it 99 for the touchdown, so it was fun."
The Illini then went on to defeat Minnesota in the next game. The Northwestern loss didn't diminish the improvement shown by the team, especially the defense. Gress spoke about that after the Michigan game.
"I think last week we really came together, pulled together and got the win. Other weeks, we would kind of get down when something happened. This game, we just did what Coach (Dan) Disch said. We kept our spirits up and kept playing and kept playing. It just happened."
The Illini learned a valuable lesson in the Michigan game, something they needed to learn much earlier in the season.
"Even when it does go bad, you've still got to keep your head up and keep playing. The first couple games, we'd get our heads down when something happened bad.
"But even when bad stuff happened in the last game, we just kept our heads up. I think that was a turning point as Coach Zook always mentions. We kept our heads up and put it to them."
Gress and his teammates now have renewed optimism, even with the Northwestern loss.
"The team's really coming together. Coach Disch is finding the guys he likes in there. And we're trying to get better every day."
As a native Californian, the 6'-0", 230 pounder has not yet acclimated to the cold winters.
"I'm trying to. I wear a lot more coats than everybody else. I'm still getting used to it. I'm looking forward to the first day of snow. I was here for snow last winter, but I'd still like to see the first snow. It sounds like fun."
Gress has two more games plus another season to experience the success he has dreamed about with the Illini.