CHAMPAIGN – The exposed steel girders are casting a strange shadow at Memorial Stadium these days, but they are nothing compared to Lemont senior lineman Graham Pocic.
The Indians senior, who made an oral commitment in June to play for Ron Zook's Illini, couldn't stop Lemont's 49-7 bludgeoning at the hands of Joliet Catholic in the Class 6A state title game Saturday. But when it was over, the Hilltoppers knew they'd been involved with a mountain of a young man.
"We were definitely aware of him," Joliet Catholic coach Dan Sharp said of the 6-foot-7, 305-pound lineman. "We don't see the sun until he kneels down."
Building blocks like Pocic, rated as one of the state's top players, are reasons why those girders aren't necessarily the most exciting aspect of the UI program's future. When Pocic made his choice known in late June, he did so with the hope that Illinois football would once again return to the upper ranks of the Big Ten.
Pocic chose hope over achievement; he spurned Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida in favor of the Illini.
Pocic said he received more than a few curious questions along the lines of, "What are you doing, Graham?"
"I was saying, 'It's an up-and-coming program. I want to be part of the rise, part of getting it back to where it should be,' " Pocic said.
After a 9-3 regular season, the Illini's arrival on the national scene will coincide with Pocic's at Illinois. Pocic said he chose Illinois partly because he saw an opportunity to play early in his career. The Illini will lose offensive linemen Akim Millington and Martin O'Donnell, perhaps giving newcomers like Pocic a chance to have an impact.
To that end, Pocic will enroll at Illinois in January.
"It's a big deal for me and the coaching staff," Pocic said. "If I want to play early, I need those extra months to come in and get stronger and faster and get ready for Big Ten football."
Pocic played on both sides of the ball this season, not an easy chore for a guy who weighs in excess of 300 pounds. On Saturday, he was the only Indian who consistently played on offense and defense, serving as a tackle on both sides. Pocic figures he'll be on offense at the UI.
Beyond his size and obvious ability to play bulldozer against opposing linemen, Pocic has developed his leadership skills. Lemont coach Eric Michaelsen said Pocic's value to Lemont went beyond the playing field.
"When he came in to Lemont, he was pretty quiet and pretty laid-back," Michaelsen said. "As he's developed this year, he's taken those (younger) kids under his wing. He gets on them when he needs to, and he pats them on the back when he needs to. He's done an excellent job."
Pocic said Saturday's game was "just another" one in his career, ignoring the obvious fact that it was played in his future college home. But Pocic, who visited Memorial Stadium for several UI home games this fall, couldn't help but glance at the steel and concrete, wondering what might be in store for his – and Illinois' – future.
"Oh, God. It's a great place," Pocic said. "I can't wait until the construction's done. It's going to be unbelievable."
Tony Bleill is a News-Gazette staff writer. You can reach him at 217-351-5605 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.