UI football notes: 'I just led by my actions'

UI football notes: 'I just led by my actions'

URBANA — Alex Palczewski's diet really hasn't changed since he arrived at Illinois last summer as a freshman.

Chicken.

Other lean meats.

Broccoli and potatoes.

The difference this offseason has been quantity.

Lots of chicken and lean meats.

More broccoli and potatoes.

And don't forget regular post-workout protein shakes.

That change in consumption has helped Palczewski add nearly 35 pounds since he arrived at Illinois. The 6-foot-6 sophomore offensive lineman came in at 270 pounds, played as a freshman at about 289 pounds and said he currently weighs in at 305 pounds.

"I've bulked up a good amount since I've been here," Palczewski said. "It feels good. I was able to put on good weight — not fat, but actual muscle."

Palczewski has added that "good weight" by watching what he eats. Desserts and fried foods are out. So is fast food.

"If you go to McDonald's or you're eating wings and burgers, you're just going to be fat and not athletic enough," Palczewski said. "You have to eat well."

And eat a lot. It's not just a chicken breast for dinner. It's four of them — plus healthy sides. The protein shakes are a big part of his diet, too.

"Our dietitians, Sebastian (Zorn) and Brittany (Perry), have done a great job," Palczewski said. "They always make these shakes after we're done lifting — like 2,000 calories — and they're giving me an extra one for later before I go to sleep."

★ ★ ★

Palczewski hasn't just bulked up in the offseason.

He's also switched positions.

After starting the final 11 games of the 2017 season at guard, the Mount Prospect native has bounced to right tackle.

"It's been hard because it's left guard (to) right tackle — not a lot of similarities," Palczewski said. "I had all summer to prepare for it and do all the footwork. It's going very well."

One clear difference is the type of defensive linemen Palczewski has to block at tackle opposed to guard.

"Usually on the interior you always block guys like Kenyon Jackson and Tymir Oliver — stout guys who are very strong," Palczewski said, referencing two Illini defensive tackles. "I'm used to that. At tackle, it's more athletic (defensive ends) — a bit smaller dudes, but they're way faster.

"You can do all the drills in the summer, but once you actually go against them live that's a different thing. Now, it's just getting as much experience and getting used to how different it is."

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Palczewski's move to tackle isn't the only change on Illinois' first string offensive line. Vederian Lowe flipped sides to left tackle, while defensive tackle convert Kendrick Green has filled Palczewski's old spot at guard.

"He's been doing well," Palczewski said of Green, who last played offensive line at Peoria High and repped all spring at defensive line before making the position change. "He's going to work as hard as he can to become as good as he can."

★ ★ ★

Bennett Williams was one of the breakout freshmen a year ago in training camp. The work the 6-foot safety put in last August helped him secure a spot in the Illinois secondary, where he played in 11 games and made seven starts in what turned into an ESPN.com Freshman All-American season.

"Coming in as a freshman I was swimming — just hoping to make an impression," Williams said. "I obviously had a chip on my shoulder. I wanted to come in and prove what I've got. Now, I've established myself, so it's a leadership-type role I've got to take now."

Williams is a veteran even as a sophomore considering the number of defensive backs Illinois added in the 2018 class. The position group as a whole is even younger than it was a year ago.

"A lot of young talent," Williams said. "You can tell athleticism is there for sure. They're still learning, but they're picking it up quickly. By next week this time they'll probably be strides better. That's what we expect from them. We see they've got a high ceiling."

★ ★ ★

The Illinois defense hasn't forced as many turnovers through two days of training camp as it did last season. Part of that is the Illinois offense running a higher percentage of plays with fewer passes across the middle. The Illini defense has still made some big plays. Sophomore safety Dawson DeGroot came up with an interception Saturday morning, and more could come when the team goes full pads and more contact as camp progresses.

Williams gives interesting perspective on the Illinois offense after playing against it and analyzing it from his spot in the secondary.

"Let's just say it's a lot better than last year having some competition," Williams said. "They're high tempo, moving quick. A lot of (run-pass option). A lot of quick-hitting stuff, which is good for us, honestly, as a defense. We've got to be way more conditioned."

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Illinois' offense under new coordinator Rod Smith has also utilized its wide receivers more in the run game. Mikey Dudek, Dominic Stampley and Carlos Sandy have all gotten the ball on jet sweeps.

"We're trying to get guys out in space and hopefully get it to a fast guy and let him go do his work," Smith said. "I'll design it for him. It's between him and the good lord what he does with it afterward."

Having more players that can run the ball splits the focus for opposing defenses.

"It's just another wrinkle for the defense to account for," sophomore running back Mike Epstein said. "It's tough when receivers are also going to run the ball or the quarterback could also run the ball. When you've got to account for three different position able to run the ball, it's going to create a lot of mismatches for the defense."

★ ★ ★

Justice Williams has been one of the early standout performers for the Illini offense. The converted linebacker has made highlight-reel-worthy catches each of the first two days of training camp by putting his size (6-3, 215) to good use.

That's not all that has stood out to Smith.

"He's got really good ball skills," the Illinois offensive coordinator said. "He's a big target, and he just keeps getting better and better."

★ ★ ★

AJ Bush joined the Virginia Tech football team as a mid-year enrollee in January 2017. The former Nebraska and Iowa Western Community College quarterback was added to the Hokies' leadership council that very offseason.

"I just led by my actions," Bush said. "That got the team to gravitate toward me."

Bush has shown the same qualities in his still brief tenure at Illinois. It's clear who the most experienced player among the Illini quarterbacks is.

"You can tell he's a veteran-type kid," Smith said. "He's handled himself pretty well. ... When we were in the process of talking to him, I was just thoroughly impressed with his approach to the game and how he handles himself — how football was super important to him. That was big to me."