CHAMPAIGN — One item was abundantly clear to Julian Pearl: If he wanted to see the field on a regular basis with the Illinois football team, he’d need to pack on some pounds.
Being a 6-foot-6, 245-pound defensive lineman in the Big Ten tends not to mean much.
So he listened when Austin Clark and Joey Boese — now the Illini’s former defensive line coach and strength coach, respectively — told him to pile up the calories and hit the weight room. Pearl kept improving himself under current Illinois strength coach Lou Hernandez. Now, the 2018 Danville graduate sits at a much more robust 305 pounds.
“I couldn’t see it until it happened, honestly,” Pearl said Tuesday. “Just the last week, I was looking at a high school picture of me, and I was like, ‘My forearm (now) looked like my bicep (in high school).’”
Something else has changed for Pearl, a redshirt sophomore in his third season with the Illini program. He switched positions and is now an offensive lineman, a move that went into effect after a meeting with Illinois coach Lovie Smith once the 2018 season ended.
No regrets, either, from Pearl’s end.
“It’s been the best move for me,” he said.
Case in point: Last Saturday’s 23-20 win at Rutgers when Pearl received the most extensive and meaningful playing time of his Illinois career after veteran right tackle Alex Palczewski went down early with a right leg injury.
In came Pearl to fill the void at right tackle, replacing Palczewski and his 40 consecutive starts. Pearl committed two early penalties, but recovered enough to receive rave reviews after the win.
“It was a super tough situation to be thrust into, and I think he handled it extremely well,” Illinois center Doug Kramer said. “He had to transition over from another position, so it took him a little more time. But he plays it with a lot of aggression and gets after it.”
During the recruiting process, Smith saw Pearl as someone who had plenty of room for growth. Not just in football, but also in the physical sense.
One of Pearl’s older brothers, Avery, played offensive line at Division III Augustana College with a 6-8 frame that carried close to 300 pounds. Smith said he also was impressed by the younger Pearl’s basketball capabilities at Danville and how he played that sport given his size at the time.
And, if Pearl didn’t mesh on the Illini defensive line, Smith had a backup plan. Similar to what Illinois left guard Kendrick Green did after making the move from defensive line to offensive line early in his Illinois career.
“The next stop is the offensive line,” Smith said. “We thought he could be a good defensive lineman but thought he could turn into an outstanding offensive lineman.”
Pearl’s athleticism traces back to his family. He’d spend summers with Avery and fellow older brother, Tayvian Johnson, going through football and basketball camps. Being the youngest of the trio came with hardships that Julian now recognizes value in.
“A lot of roughhousing. They used to do that to me a lot,” Julian said. “But I think it kind helped me ... just to have more of an edge to me.”
Possessing a love for both football and basketball, Pearl initially wasn’t clear which he’d like to pursue in college. That choice was taken out of his hands while his high school career progressed.
“When I was first getting mail ... I just was realizing I’m getting all this mail from football teams and not one basketball letter,” Pearl said. “So maybe I should probably direct my energy toward football. It was definitely an easy decision because, I mean, I do love basketball, but I understood at the time that’s not going to take me where I want to be.”
Pearl redshirted as a true freshman in 2018 before playing in three games last season on the offensive line. Even though he wasn’t anticipating playing against Rutgers, the team’s recent COVID-19 absences showed Pearl he could be called upon to take the field at any point.
Just like fellow Danville graduate Caleb Griffin, who served as Illinois’ kicker in losses to Purdue and Minnesota while James McCourt was held out in contract tracing protocol.
“I remember Caleb talking about he hasn’t taken this many reps since high school,” Pearl said. “It just felt crazy to be out there. I just felt like I was in high school again, like taking snaps that were meaningful. It felt good to contribute.”
Palczewski was on crutches on the sideline at Rutgers after suffering his injury. But the senior was also providing Pearl important advice.
“As soon as he could, (Palczewski) came back to me, came talking in my ear,” Pearl said, “telling me what I should be looking for, what I should be ready for, and that helps.”
Palczewski wasn’t the only one using veteran experience to aid Pearl, with Kramer, Green and Vederian Lowe all longtime offensive line starters.
“A lot of the other guys on the line already, they were just like holding me accountable,” Pearl said. “They weren’t trying to coddle me, nothing like that. They were just like, ‘You have to do this. Nobody cares that this is your first time.’ I feel like that works best with me.”
Palczewski’s status is unclear for Saturday’s 11 a.m. kickoff between Illinois (1-3) and Nebraska (1-2) at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb., with Smith saying Monday his staff is monitoring Palczewski’s recovery.
Meaning Pearl could potentially make his first collegiate start against the Cornhuskers.
“It’s definitely ... a newer feeling at this level,” Pearl said. “It’s just something that you have to be ready for, honestly. You hate for that to have to happen like that (with Palczewski’s injury), but you have to be ready.”