Jamal Milan is middle man for the Illini

Jamal Milan is middle man for the Illini

CHAMPAIGN — Jamal Milan limped off the field during training camp in August with a look on his face only someone who's already suffered a season-ending knee injury could muster. He was sure it was as bad as the injury that sidelined him as a true freshman in 2015 after just one game.

Milan's diagnosis, though, proved much more positive. While the redshirt junior defensive tackle missed most of the bulk of training camp and the first four games of the season, he was back on the field Saturday as Illinois snapped its 13-game, 700-day Big Ten losing streak during a 38-17 win at Rutgers. Milan will be just as critical to the Illini (3-2, 1-1 Big Ten) as they return to action at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against Purdue (2-3, 1-1).

"It was so exciting just being able to run around and play with my guys," Milan said. "Getting my first tackle, getting that feel, was overwhelming."

Milan had a smile on his face Wednesday morning after practice discussing his return to the field. It was a fairly sharp contrast to how he felt both immediately after his injury and during his recovery through August and September.

"Once you go through it once, you kind of know what to expect," Milan said about his injury. "I actually thought it was worse, but after going through everything they told me it wasn't worse. It was literally a breath of fresh air."

Milan didn't show any signs of hesitance against Rutgers.

"I just believed in what the trainers had me do the entire time," he said. "Once they said I was good, I felt like I was good. I just had to go out there and go as hard as possible. If something happened, something happened."

Sitting out wasn't new for Milan. He also missed the final two games last season in addition to 2015. Still, sitting out wasn't easy for the 6-foot-3, 305-pound Chicago native.

"It was very depressing just knowing I couldn't do something for the team," he said.

The Illini were glad to have Milan back. He finished with just two tackles against Rutgers, but his presence on the field and in the middle of the Illinois defense meant even more.

"He added a lot being a strong, physical guy that he is that can move laterally side to side and down the field," junior defensive tackle Kenyon Jackson said. "He added a big thing that we were missing on the inside with the rotation — somebeody that could get off blocks and chase down runners. We're going to need that."

Illinois coach Lovie Smith called Milan the team's "best defensive lineman."

"First game coming back for Jamal, he kind of stabilized us in our interior of our defense being able to occupy a couple blocks and making plays in the run game," Illini defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said. "He really helped us in terms of our run fits and our run game."

Even with his injury, Milan tried to continue to lead a fairly young Illinois defensive line. His view from the sideline — and the ability to just watch the first four games — pinpointed specific adjustments he could share with his teammates.

"It was just a few little things," Milan said. "Sometimes somebody got out of their gap or didn't use their hands well enough. Me being the guy I am, I really like to work on doing things right."

That's something Jackson acknowledged in terms of Milan's leadership ability — on or off the field.

"He's a person that's going to tell you what you're doing right and what you're doing wrong," Jackson said. "He's a guy that likes to look at the little things. He brings that element to our team — especially for me and Tymir (Oliver) — to tell us hand placement and shedding off blocks and things he looks and he feels like can help us improve."