Illinois defensive tackle Corey Liuget was expected to dominate as a sophomore last fall. However, weight gain and a sprained ankle set back his progress. He played through the ankle injury, preventing total healing.
"It took me the whole rest of the season. I wasn't myself the whole season, from the fourth game on down. I just got back in the spring."
Football players always say the same thing when asked if it would have been better to sit out games until they had returned to 100% health.
"I didn't want to sit out, just push on through it. That's football. If I can make it through that, I can make it through anything. Rehab helped me also. I might have felt uncomfortable when I went out to play, but with rehab I felt more and more comfortable."
Last year, defensive tackles were supposed to occupy offensive linemen so linebackers would be free to make tackles. Liuget gained weight to improve that part of his game, but he needed to lose it again for a new defensive style this year.
"I've lost 20 pounds. Most definitely I've gotten some quickness back. In this defense, you have to be quick."
New Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning has brought change to the defense. Liuget likes what he sees.
"It's going smooth so far, on and off the field. It's going good for us as a team and me as an individual.
"The changes are good. We all are comfortable with it. We all just get to the ball. Tackles and takeaways, that's what defense is basically about.
"My job is completely different. It's hit the block and get off the block. Make a play in the backfield if you're not blocked. Last year it was more of a hold your gap and let the linebackers through to make the play. This year, we're just going to get the ball, whether it's East-West, North-South or whatever. We're just going."
Has the change from four down linemen to three on occasion been a problem for the Floridian?
"No, not at all. It makes us a much better defense because our down linemen are shooting our gaps and getting to the ball. It gives us as a d-line a chance to go make plays."
What does he think of Koenning?
"Coach Koenning is a great coach. He's pushing us every day. Some days it's like, 'Man, is this guy crazy?' But it's gonna help us to be better and get us where we need to be."
The 6'-3", 300 pounder has returned to physical health. But he says time and the changes have helped to heal the mind as well. The Illini must eliminate all thought of previous failure to play their best this fall, and he believes that is happening.
"Yes, most definitely. We're just trying to do what the coaches are preaching. The winter conditioning has helped us with the bruises and bumps. And we're ready to go out and attack people. I think we're gonna be a much better team this year."