You started a game last year, didn't you?
"I started Illinois. Because Spencer Havner had an injury. He ended up playing, but he just didn't start."
So, this is your real, first, legitimate start...
"Yeah, it is. I'm very excited and have been looking forward to it. Every since I came here, I've been looking forward to it for a long time. Ever since I knew I'd have the opportunity, and kind of had the idea I'd start, I've been thinking about what the first game will be like."
Is there a difference between starting for a game, like Illinois, when maybe you weren't completely prepared, and now?
"There definitely is a difference, when you've been preparing to start the entire off-season, with that in mind. I think you go into the game with a different mindset. With Illinois, I found out a couple of days before I was going to start. It's definitely different preparation, and I think I'm far more prepared now."
How have you changed since last season, both physically and in your mental approach to the game?
"Physically, in the off-season, I got a lot stronger. All of my lifts went up considerably. Just from a preparation level, every rep I've gotten since last year has made me that much more prepared for the season. Taking reps with the ones all the time instead of the twos, or just some reps with the ones, has given me a better feeling for the guys I'll be on the field with."
"I think he has. It's been pretty noticeable. He's a real focused player. Dan is the guy you can count on not to make mistakes. Even though he's a different player that Justin. He knows that, everybody knows that. But he's not going to that mistake that kills you. He works hard, pays attention in meetings, and does everything to make sure he's in the best position to make plays. I think he'll do fine while Justin can't play."
What do you think are some of the aspects of your game you need to improve?
"I think I can improve on everything. I think just playing and getting more game reps will make the biggest difference. I want to keep getting stronger. During the season, instead of just maintaining strength I want to increase strength. I want to get better at everything and improve my game as a whole."
Do you look at Justin and Spencer as mentors to a degree? Players you can use as resources to help you?
"Derfinitely. They have those years of starting under their belts. Justin with one year and Spencer with two years of starting. I learned a tremendous amount just playing behind Spencer for two years. Watching him play and practicing with him, I've learned a lot from him. I just know that when I'm on the field with them, it takes pressure off me because I know they're going to make plays. I hope I don't make a mistake, but if I do they're good enough to help me cover it up."
Spencer has moved to Brandon Chillar's Will linebacker spot and you've stepped into Spencer's Sam spot from last year, right? It used to be that the Sam lined up over the tight end all the time, but this has changed. Explain the fundamental differences now between the positions...
"It's different, because we have two different fronts. Sometimes the Will is to the tight end side, and sometimes the Sam is now. Most of the time, the Will has two gaps. He's a two-gap player. Everybody else on the defense has one gap. In our defense you try to put the playmaker at Will. Last year they felt that Brandon was our best linebacker so we put him in that spot. This year they feel that Spencer is that player. So he gets the opportunity to make the most plays at Will. The Sam has to be out of the box a lot and cover tight ends and slot receivers. So the positions are a little bit different but they're pretty interchangeable too."
So, this is a departure from the Sam and Will roles of a few years ago? "Yeah, it's changed a little. I think a while back Dave Ball played Sam one of those years. When they did that, they were in an under front, so he just stayed over the tight end all the time. Now often times I'll start over the tight end but have to go out and match up with a slot receiver in the zone coverage, and sometimes in the man coverage. It depends. It's changed, though, a little bit."
Do you have to be more prepared and versatile in this scheme? "Yeah. It changes a lot with the different defenses. The rules are pretty simple and it's not too hard to figure out. It's pretty fun. I like it because there are a lot of variations so you don't feel like you're, say, in the box all the time, or always out on the wide receiver. There is a lot of variation."
How do you think you've done in fall camp?
"I think I've done well. Coming into camp I knew I needed to be more consistent. After spring I needed to play more consistently."
Was that consistency in knowing your assignments, knowing where to be?
"It was as much knowing where to be as executing and practicing hard. In the past, I would have a bad practice here or there. Coming into this camp I wanted to correct that and have good practices all the way through. I think I did a lot better job of staying focused this camp."
How is it going to feel in the Rose Bowl on Saturday for your first real start?
"It's going to feel great. It's kind of the moment I've been waiting for. It's been longer than I thought, I would say. But I'm just happy to have the opportunity now and want to try to make the best of it."