Zach Becker was named Most Improved on offense at the end of spring practices. That is quite an accomplishment for someone who couldn't participate in winter conditioning.
"Zach Becker is working two different positions and is getting better and better," Illinois football coach Ron Zook explains. "He didn't go through the winter program because he had stress fractures in both feet and had surgery on both of those."
In fact, Becker has endured multiple injuries in his athletic career. Most teammates didn't even realize one major trauma until recently, when a nasty scar revealed itself just above his hairline.
"Summer going into freshman year of high school, I was playing basketball in a summer league. I caught an elbow right in the forehead. It broke my frontal sinus bones.
"I didn't want a scar where you could see it all the time, so he went in and put a plate and some screws in, and about 30 staples. These guys didn't know about it until just before spring ball when I shaved my hair.
"I probably got asked about it 100 times because nobody knew I had it. But I'm not hiding anything, I'm not afraid of it. I have a screw in each foot, and I don't know how many they put in my forehead. So I'm metal head to toe.
"So far the metal detectors at airports haven't been going off. But I haven't gone through it since I had my foot surgeries."
The 6'-3", 250 pounder is a tough physical specimen, the epitome of a self-made man. He not only is playing an important role on the team, he is doing it at multiple positions.
"I'm the fullback, and I know both it and the tight end position. Whatever play they want, they can put me in the backfield or at the tight end and I'll be able to run it."
When Paul Petrino was named offensive coordinator, there was a new emphasis on the fullback position.
"Last year we only really used a fullback on goal line or short yardage plays. This year they have all kinds of fullback personnel in for passes and protection and all kinds of runs.
"Petrino is a lot more pro-style, but we have some of the same type of plays. There are checks and audibles and all kinds of things we need to be successful."
"Greg's come a long way. He came in last year with a deer in the headlights look and didn't know what was going on. This year he's picking up the offense, and he looks like he knows what he's doing. He's talking it up out there."
The fullback and tight end often have similar responsibilities in the new offense, so it is an easy transition for Becker to go from one to the other. Since tight end was also a limited position previously, most of the talent there is young and inexperienced. Becker comments on tight ends London Davis and Justin Lattimore.
"London's had a little experience from last year. He's doing a good job and working hard all the time. Lattimore redshirted this year, but he probably runs the routes the best out of all of us. He's lighter than the rest of us so he runs better. He's come a long way. We're trying to get him to be more physical each day."
Whether at fullback or tight end, Becker must block for others as well as catch passes. When combo quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is running the offense, he must be prepared to do both on the same play.
"Whenever you're going against a guy who is as quick as Nate is, it's hard as a defense to contain us. For us, the second we see him flushed out of the pocket we have a scramble drill where we look for open space to catch the ball. But once he crosses the line we look for someone to block."
Becker butts up against the Illini defense every play in practice. There are few better positioned to describe their potential.
"Those guys are always moving and coming from every position on the field. It's really difficult if you're not sound on your pickups and blitzes. They're a lot more aggressive than last year."
According to Petrino, Becker has all the traits necessary to excel in his role, which also includes H-Back, a fullback/tight end hybrid.
"First of all he's really smart, which helps us because he plays three spots. He knows what he's doing, he helps the other guys with what we're doing, he's a team player, and he's gonna play an important role for us."