Expectations were sky high for Michael Buchanan and the Illini entering his senior season, and with two wins entering today’s finale, 2012 has been a disappointment. No matter what happens, though, chances are you’ll see the 6-foot-5, 250-pound defensive end on an NFL field next fall making life difficult for opposing quarterbacks. Today, in his return to the Chicagoland area, the Homewood-Flossmoor product hopes to have one more positive memory in an Illini uniform.
What are your thoughts on this being your last week as a college football player? It’s going to be emotional. My life is about to change dramatically. I won’t have the same camaraderie, guys I grew up with, came in with as freshmen. It’s going to be a big change, but I’m looking forward to the next stage in my life. I’m definitely going to miss it here.
You’re usually practicing on Sundays, what are you going to be doing this Sunday? I’m going to be in Chicago, so probably get back around my family and start making decisions about the next phase in my life.
Can you put into words how disappointing this season has been? I don’t think there’s anything I can say other than it’s been extremely disappointing. It’s not how we thought the season was going to go coming into it. I think the last few games we’ve shown a lot more fight. Guys at this point, we’re trying to do whatever we can and try to build the program for the future, getting young guys coached up, leading by example and playing hard. Even though we can’t go to a bowl game because our record is what it is, just play hard every game, every snap, no matter the score, no matter the record.
What are your plans for the future? I’m going to start my training, decide which senior bowls I want to go to and prepare for the combine and those things.
When did you realize you had a legitimate shot at becoming an NFL player? Probably last year. Me and Whit (Whitney Mercilus), we had a very successful year and I realized I would be one of the guys the NFL would be looking heavily at. I needed to put on some more size. I knew a lot of guys would be looking at me coming into the season.
How much thought did you give to coming out last season? There was some. As soon as I met Coach Beckman and talked to him, I was very comfortable coming back and spending my senior year here. I don’t regret it at all. Even though things didn’t go as expected, it’s been a great experience meeting him and getting to play one last year with my guys.
Is gaining weight one of the things the NFL people wanted you to do? Yeah, it’s just one of those things. I have a lot of things I need to improve in my game, like everybody. It’s one of the things that made me want to come back to polish up my game and get my body right for the next level.
What did you learn from watching Whitney Mercilus do what he did last year? Just being relentless. Whitney is one of those guys that came to work every day, he never complained no matter what was happening. If we were down, he just came and played, didn’t say much, just led by example.
Against Western Michigan, you were in Alex Carder’s face a lot. Do you talk much to the opposing quarterbacks during games? That game, we were doing a little talking, it wasn’t really trash talk. He would just be like ‘Man, 99, where are you coming from? We’ve got to get a hat on you’, just stuff like that. It’s more funny than anything, not much trash talk. I’m not a big trash talker. That game, I was definitely getting a lot of pressure. About the sixth time I picked him up off the ground he was like ‘What’s going on? We’ve got to do something to block you’.
What’s been the best moment of your career? Going to bowl games. We went to back-to-back bowl games. And even thought they weren’t the biggest games out there it was still a great experience to go to different cities with my teammates and my coaches, staying in nice hotels, the bowl gear, just everything that comes with that. Even though they weren’t the big ones we’d like to go to, it was like our own little championship. It was a great experience and winning those games is something I will always remember the most.
Is there one hit that you remember dishing out that stands out to you? Probably against Northwestern last year, a sideline tackle. It was a speed option, I played the quarterback and the pitch man — it was a guy from Illinois that I know, Mike Trumpy — I slung him out of bounds and all the Northwestern guys were running off at the mouth a little bit. It felt real good, a tackle for loss.
What’s been the lowest moment of your career? Probably my senior year, not having the success and the wins that I thought we would to end my career.
When you had a broken jaw this summer, how did you maintain your weight? I had a lot of smoothies, I got sick of them. No more smoothies, only food that I can chew now. That was just something I had to deal with, drinking a lot of smoothies, protein shakes to keep my weight. I was able to gain everything back, plus more. I didn’t want to go through that but I was able to bounce back. I was wired up for a couple of weeks, then I was able to break down food and eat it. I lost about 20 pounds. I’m about 250 right now.
How have you learned from some of the off-the-field troubles you encountered during your career? I have had some issues here and the issues I did have, they seemed like the end of the world because you’re only thinking in that time frame. I’ve realized that you have to learn from the mistakes and not let them happen. Time heals all wounds. I don’t even think about those issues anymore. I think I have bounced back from it, I’ve learned lessons from it. One mistake can dramatically change your life. I think I’ve grown into a better man from it.