Looking at the depth chart entering spring ball, Illinois had a walkon, a two-year reserve, a slender redshirt freshman, and a converted offensive lineman competing for time at the tight end spot. Some considered the position a weak link on the team, but not tight end coach Greg Nord.
"We never think of ourselves as a weak link. I told the guys one day, everybody worries about what you don't have rather than what you do have. Let's take the talents you all have and hone them up and get as good as we can possibly be. It's become a strength."
Nord requires attention to detail, but his goal is to help each player reach and go beyond his potential. So far, it seems to be working as the tight ends played a prominent role in the offense all spring.
"We all have the same common goal. That's to be the very best we can be. And I'm gonna try to be as demanding as I can to help them get to the ultimate goal they all have, and that's to play championship football."
Walkon Zach Becker had the most previous experience, although he continues to split time between tight end and fullback. He isn't a speed demon, but he makes plays both as a blocker and receiver.
He is competing with redshirt sophomore London Davis, who's one catch last fall was a touchdown, redshirt freshman Justin Lattimore, converted guard Andrew Carter and Russell Ellington, who was moved from linebacker the last week of spring ball. Nord discusses each one.
"You start off with Becker. Zach has had a great spring in my opinion. He's played several positions, and he's done a good job pushing the competition to a higher level. He's a guy that has played in games and continues to lead the group.
"London Davis is a guy that's getting better. He's got a few little things he's got to work out as far as fundamentals, but he's getting better. And I think he's getting a better feel for playing the position.
"Justin Lattimore continues to get better every day. He's improving on his fundamentals. He's got a few things he's gonna continue working on this summer, and hopefully get bigger and stronger in the weight room. I like his game as well.
"Andrew Carter is helping us out this spring as a blocker. He's a great guy, team guy. He comes to work every day and does whatever's asked of him to try to help us win.
"Russ Ellington has come over here lately and got a few snaps. He's tried to get a feel for the position, and then all the decisions regarding his future we'll decide sometime this summer."
Tight ends are utilized a number of ways in the new offense, as traditional tight ends, H-backs and receivers. Creating quality depth is essential to the success of the offense, and increased competition is important as well.
"We've always used several tight ends in Coach Petrino's offense. That's something we pride ourselves on and I think gives other teams fits. The competition is gonna make them better in the long run, and eventually the guys will learn what to do. I look forward to see how they come back in the summer."
Since some of the tight ends are better blockers and some better receivers, packages will be prepared for each to take advantage of their abilities.
"Coach Petrino's philosophy, and the philosophy of the offense, is 'Feed The Studs.' So we must find what each person does best and let them do that. If they do something better than everyone else on the offense, then we'll give them the opportunity to do that."
When a tight end is used as an H-back, he plays a role similar to a fullback. His primary role is adding an extra blocker for the running game while also being available for short passes. Nord coaches Becker while DeAndre Smith coaches Fuller. It can seem confusing, but it is all part of featuring versatile players in a multiple offense.
"Some of the guys are being trained at multiple positions. So Greg could possibly work as a running back if he had to. As we get finalized on where we truly want each guy to play, we'll get that worked out.
"But Becker I'm sure will stay with me. Fuller might potentially start working with me on some of our drills as well. To be honest, all my guys end up learning what the fullback does because part of our offense is being multiple. We can use a two-back offense out of any personnel group. So everybody has to learn everything."
The Illini add tall Georgian Evan Wilson to the mix in the fall. It is always hard for a rookie to break in due to the difficulty of learning a complex offense in a short time. But he will be given an opportunity to prove himself.
"He will come in and join the competition, and whoever we think is best at the end of Camp Rantoul will line up and get after it the first play of the Missouri game."
Nord was somewhat vague as to how many tight ends might be recruited to provide additional depth down the road, but he does leave open that possibility.
"You always try to get better. We'd never turn down a great player, and we're always trying to improve each position."