Jack Cornell arrived at Illinois after an impressive career at Quincy Notre Dame. Labeled a 4-star athlete by Scout, Illini doctors were quoted as saying he was physically ready to play as a freshman.
That wasn't the case. Mired deep on the depth chart and gaining weight as quickly as skills, Cornell had trouble getting playing time. But he seems to have turned over a new leaf this spring.
"I think I've improved. Every year you come out and work on things you were struggling on last year. I think that's what I did. I really wanted to come out and show these coaches that I can play, and I think I did."
The offensive style under new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino requires more movement and agility from the linemen. Thus, losing weight and gaining conditioning were emphasized throughout winter conditioning. Cornell benefitted as much as anyone, losing 20 or more pounds.
"I feel really good right now. These strength coaches have done a really good job of getting everyone in shape and everyone stronger. That's real important going into the summer phase."
Improved play allowed Cornell to reach first team status late in spring ball, rotating with Hugh Thornton and Randall Hunt for the two guard spots. He spoke before learning that tackle Corey Lewis will miss the season with knee surgery, but he is excited about the improved depth along the line.
"I think it's great that we have a lot of depth. The past couple of years we haven't had the depth we do now. We have guys who can step in and play at a moment's notice.
"That's really important during the long stretch of the season when guys are getting tired and banged up. It's a really great thing to know that we have somebody to fill a spot."
Cornell has great respect for offensive line coach Joe Gilbert.
"It's a good relationship. He's a great teacher, and he really knows how to teach the offense. He preaches about being a student of the game, and that's one of the great things he brings to the table. He's a technician, and he's always harping on that. In the long run, that's what wins ball games."
He also likes the new offense.
"It was complicated at first, but once we started picking up on it and started putting it into action I think we got rolling. It's a really fun offense to run, and it's a pro-style offense like what you watch on Sundays."
He appreciates the energy and enthusiasm generated by Petrino and the rest of the offensive staff.
"Petrino is a tough coach, and he's really preaching about being tough physically and mentally and bringing it everyday. We needed that juice to be put back in us. All of the coaches did that. It's really awesome what they've been able to accomplish in a short amount of time."
Cornell likes protecting Illini quarterbacks, especially Nathan Scheelhaase.
"It really helps us out up front. He has the ability to scramble and run. He's a hell of an athlete. He's got a lot of poise in the pocket."
The 6'-5", 315 pounder also heaps praise on the Illini defense led by defensive coordinator Vic Koenning.
"It's a great defense. They're going to do some great things this year I know. They're slanting all the time and blitzing. It's different from anything we've ever seen. They're really ferocious with it."
Going against the defensive tackles every day in practice gives Cornell a unique perspective on them.
"The tackles are great. Corey Liuget is one hell of a lineman. Akeem Spence is real strong. Glenn Foster is real shifty. All those guys up front bring their own unique qualities and problems for the offensive line. Going up against them will help us in the fall."
There is much to learn, and the summer will be vital in terms of individual and team development. But there is one overriding motivation for Cornell and his teammates.
"Win ball games. That's it."