Jay Prosch had a great fall and was continuing to impress this spring before he received word of his mother's severe illness.
"She's all right. She has brain cancer, but she's fighting hard and doing good. She's been strong, so I'm just hoping for the best."
Prosch spent a week in Mobile, Alabama, to be with his mother. It was difficult to return, but she made it easier for him.
"I wanted to come back, but it was hard. What made it easy is that she's not tied up in a bed or anything. She's up walking around doing everything. So it was easy for me to know she was doing okay.
"I could leave with confidence, but I still wanted to be there for her. I was kind of ready to get back and get back into football."
Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino's heart goes out to his star freshman.
"He's had a real hard time. I think it helps him to be around his friends and get out on the field, be around Coach Long, be around Coach Zook. Everyone loves him as a staff, and we want to do everything we can for him."
Prosch returned to practice on a Wednesday, and by Saturday he was given time at tailback. Running back coach DeAndre Smith said Illini coaches hoped to help him enjoy his day.
"We care about him, and we want to be real supportive. I know that's a very sad situation for his family. We were just having a little fun today, helping him forget about it. And he kind of enjoyed it. Maybe tonight will be a little tough for him, but this can help him get through the day."
He not only had fun, he impressed as a bruising running back in the mold of Mike Alstott, former Purdue and Tampa Bay star according to Smith, speaking after last Saturday's scrimmage.
"He was great. We had a plan at the beginning of spring, that if something happened, we needed to get him some reps at running back. Obviously, he can do a great job with pass protection. So we've just got to give him a little more chance to work at it.
"He's Alstott. He did a great job, big, physical. What was funny was you could see some good energy coming out; he gave a little wink after a nice run. He has those natural instincts. I think he enjoyed it today."
As well as he's doing as a football player, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning says he's an even better person.
"What's not to love? He's the best kid, toughest guy. Good night, we all want our kids to grow up like him, without a doubt. He's just an All-American guy, and I can't say enough about him. He's had a tough couple of weeks, and he's probably persevered better than any of us could."
Koenning recruited Prosch, but he minimizes his role.
"I can't take credit for that one. I have a good friend that's a high school coach down in Alabama. He said he saw a guy he thought was really good. I happened to have the school's head coach's number and called him. Sometimes the good Lord takes care of those who can't take care of themselves. That was probably a good example of that."
Prosch played offensive line until his senior season, and then he played almost exclusively at linebacker. Illinois needed fullbacks for its new pro-style offense. Fellow freshman Jake Howe was recruited to play fullback, but Koenning joked about wanting Howe at defensive tackle.
"Part of it is I wanted Jake Howe on defense. If I wanted to get Jake Howe on defense, then I had to go find a fullback."
However it came about, the Illini are fortunate to have such a strong, impressive athlete on their team. Prosch had few scholarship offers, choosing Illinois over Northern Illinois. But home-state favorites made things interesting at the last.
"Alabama talked to me, and they told me they wanted me to come as a preferred walkon. I wanted to go there, but I had other opportunities to do something else besides being a walkon.
"Auburn strung me along all the way until signing day. The night before, they told me to wait until 10:30 am on signing day, and they would almost guarantee me a scholarship.
"I knew Auburn was waiting on somebody else, so I didn't want to be the second or third guy and then get in as a last resort. So I said forget it. I signed with Illinois at 6:30 in the morning. I'm glad I came here. It took me awhile at first to get used to it, but I like it a lot."
As well as Prosch played as a freshman, his blocking is much improved this spring due to experience and confidence.
"The main difference I see is my speed. I feel I'm a lot faster getting off the ball and getting to the hole. I feel I'm able to move better. Last year looking back, I feel like I was bottled up in one direction. But now I can focus on whether I need to insert the A or B guy."
He says it does make a difference who is running behind his blocks, but he doesn't mind who has the ball as long as he's on the field.
"Right now, they don't cause any problems. This spring, I'm just trying to focus on me. But during the season, I would like to have one main guy just to keep the communication going between us. But otherwise I don't mind. I just try to do what I do."
Defenders don't look forward to receiving Prosch's blocks. The muscular athlete is one of the team's strongest players. He recently broke teammate Akeem Spence's power clean record by five pounds.
"It felt really good. I did 382 pounds."
Prosch hasn't gained much weight since arriving on campus, but he is in much better shape.
"When I came up here, I was maybe 245, 250 with about 14-15% body fat. Last year during the season I was like 6%, but now before we started spring I was at 8%. Just trimming up and getting more muscle I guess."
Prosch caught one pass last fall, and he's seen a few more come his way this spring. He has good hands. And as his 35 yards in 8 carries in a scrimmage demonstrates, he can run the ball also. Fullbacks love to carry the ball, and he is no exception.
"It feels really good. I was kind of nervous the first series. In high school, I ran the ball around 4-5 times. That's the only time I've ever touched the ball. I was nervous, but I was excited."
Blocker, pass receiver, runner. Prosch can do it all, and he has three more years to improve on his game. He will no doubt suffer hardships along the way, but he will likely rebound by being an ever better person and player.
While some athletes in his situation transfer to a school closer to home to be with sick family, it appears the Illini will continue to benefit from his presence for the remainder of his college career.
"This is my home."