Evan Wilson was not heavily recruited out of Woodstock, Georgia, but Illinois coaches saw something in him they liked. Wilson is built like a receiver but was used mostly as a blocker in high school. That is the role he played this season, and the Illini running game was stronger because of it.
Wilson and freshman fullback Jay Prosch were essential all year. Both had an excellent first year according to tight end/fullback coach Chip Long.
"He did, him and Jay Prosch. We asked a lot out of those two guys. They started every game, played hard every game. It was really good to see those guys compete; they were boys against men."
Long says the Illini would have needed a different set of offensive schemes if the two freshmen hadn't played well.
"There's no doubt. If they hadn't worked out, we would have gone a different way. The way they've played is an added bonus for us."
Long sees a bright future for both.
"Those two are gonna be tremendous players. All their great football is in front of them. They learn in the meetings, take it to the practice field and then execute during games. They're playing extremely hard and tough. They're two tough, hard-nosed players."
Speaking during Texas Bowl practices, Wilson shared his thought processes on contributing as a freshman.
"That's what I'm trying to do, keep this program up to standard and keep getting better every day and every week. It's definitely a challenge, but I'm gonna keep striving to get better for next year when I can take off."
The 6'-6", 240 pounder has continued to learn, even after a midseason interview.
"I have more football knowledge. You come in and think you know a lot about the game, and there's so much more to learn. I've strived to know more about offense and what the defense is doing. Where I think I can get better is the physical part of the game, which I think comes with time."
Wilson admits the combination of football and academics is a stern test for a rookie.
"It was rough. It's a balancing act, and you have those weeks where it hits you. You hit a wall so to speak. I hate that, but you've really just got to get through it. You have some weeks where you play good, and some weeks where you play good but your grades aren't so good. Finding that balance is the key."
Wilson's blocking received its best publicity after the Wrigley Field game with Northwestern. Wilson and Prosch helped open massive holes for Mikel Leshoure and the other Illini backs, who collectively gained 519 yards on the ground that day.
"Yeah, it was good to know we had a big part in that success. Jay's a great player. He's gonna be a really good player. I wouldn't want to get in front of him. I think we're both gonna be real good players."
Wilson caught 10 passes on the year for 135 yards and two touchdowns. But he needs more work to be a consistent receiver for the Illini according to Long.
"He's got a long ways to go. He'll work hard all off season. Evan needs to get in the weight room to become stronger and more flexible, more powerful coming off the ball. Being able to get out of breaks. He's not as strong and experienced as he needs to be right now.
"He's running okay routes. He doesn't get the separation he needs, and that comes with experience and also getting stronger. He hasn't approached where he's gonna be. He has talent and ability, it just comes with repetition, understanding leverage points, getting stronger. It's exciting to see what kind of off season he will have."
Wilson knows he will have more passes thrown his way once he proves worthy.
"There are opportunities there for me in the passing game. There's things I've got to get better at, and those plays will get called. I think it's just gonna come with time.
"We have a very young team. I think our passing game will start clicking even more. And that will open up for a lot of people. I've got to get better, and other people have to get better to get this offense going."
Wilson was grateful to focus solely on football once first semester final exams ended. Did he feel like a new person?
"Almost. You just take that sigh of relief that school's done for a period of time, and you get to do something you enjoy."
Bowl practices provide youngsters like Wilson with the fundamental drills they need. With a full season and extra set of practices under his belt, he is no longer a rookie.
"Yeah. I get yelled at a lot, but I'm not a freshman any more. I feel like I've grown up. This (bowl practice) is like another spring. We really went back to the basics and really honed in on some fundamentals. I think that will be valuable."
Wilson and his teammates wanted a winning season, and they got it with a win over Baylor in the Texas Bowl. It is something positive to build upon.
"Yeah, you always think about that. I came from a high school program where we had to establish that winning tradition. That was the standard through my high school career, and that's the standard now. That's what we're trying to establish now. We need this winning season to build on."
Wilson has great hopes for the future of the Illini offense.
"I feel like if we do what we need to do, we're gonna be very successful. I feel like it's all on us; I feel like that every game. If we do what we need to do in the game plan, we'll be very successful.
"We're taking it very seriously. This is no joke for us. Coach Petrino is always gonna keep that intensity high for us, and we're gonna be ready to play."