Illini Freshman Tight End Has Bright Future

Matt LaCosse (Getty Images)

Last season, the Illini were trying to develop a tight end corps. This year, thanks to the improvement of squadmen and the addition of two outstanding rookies, it is a position of strength. Tall, fast Matt LaCosse is beginning to see playing time as a freshman. His future is extremely bright.

Matt LaCosse was a running quarterback at Naperville North High School. There are many running quarterbacks, but rarely do you find one 6'-6" tall and recruited to play tight end in college. LaCosse is a rarity due to his speed and fluidity for his size.

While working to earn playing time at tight end, LaCosse has joined the kickoff team. He had an impact against Northwestern by making two tackles. He was pleasantly surprised.

"It was my first tackles since freshman year of high school. It felt pretty good. It was pretty nerve-wracking going in, but I just did what Coach told me to do."

He's enjoying the role so much, he wants to add to his duties.

"I hope to be on kick return soon. I hope to be on every special team if they'll let me."

He came to Illinois expecting to play as a freshman.

"It feels really good. I don't think any freshman should come to school thinking he should redshirt. I think a freshman should come in saying, 'I want to play.' That was my attitude."

Of course, he also wants to see more time as a tight end. He had an inkling he could be effective at the position.

"When I went to camps to try to get recruited, I had quarterbacks throwing to me that sometimes didn't put the ball where they're supposed to. I kind of noticed I had a knack for catching the ball. But I didn't know I could run outs."

He enjoyed a great Camp Rantoul as a receiver, going over the top of defenders and diving for errant passes. And his acceleration after a catch was impressive. He excited onlookers, but he admits there is more to tight end than receiving.

"I've worked on my speed my entire life. I'm fast for my size. Receiving-wise I did well. Blocking-wise I struggled. When the plays were there, I tried to make them."

Tight end coach Chip Long has worked diligently to help him understand blocking technique.

"Athletically, I think I'm fine at tight end, with my past experiences carrying the ball and catching the ball. But definitely blocking was a big problem for me because I'd never done it. I'd been a linebacker and quarterback my entire life.

"It was a new experience, but I'm working hard. Coach Long is a great coach. He pushes me every day, and I'm getting better every day."

It has helped him to add muscle to his slender frame.

"I've put on 20 pounds since June 9th. I now weigh 240."

The strength gain and hard work are paying off.

"From Rantoul to now, it's night and day. My film up there wasn't very good, but now it's getting a lot better."

He has seen limited action at tight end simply because it would hurt the team to be type-cast as a receiver only. He must prove capable with both assignments so defenses will have to play him straight.

"I'm trying to prove to Coach I can play on an everyday basis. I'm hoping to see more action. I know they really want me to be a good receiver, but I can't just go in there for receiving. I have to prove to them that I can block before they will put me in."

He knew the Illini would play well this season.

"I had a good feeling when I came here that we'd be pretty good this year. Our coaching staff is amazing. Nobody works as hard as we do in practice. It shows up when we have comebacks like we did. We just keep pushing and never give up. Our mentality is we're never out of anything. We just find a way to win."

Long is excited about his freshmen Jon Davis and LaCosse. He speaks glowingly of them as a pair.

"They're both starting to get used to it, used to the routine and used to the position. They've never been in a three point stance. They're both really hard workers and great kids. They're a lot of fun to coach.

"Both can run, they're not afraid of contact and they love to play. You like coaching those kind of guys. We've got to get them in the game more. The more they progress, the better they play. (LaCosse) is still learning, but he has such raw ability. It's exciting."

LaCosse makes an inviting target downfield because quarterbacks can see him well. He was called upon once in the Ohio State game, and he almost made a great catch with two defenders draped on him 20 yards downfield. He didn't make his first Illini catch at that time, but he will grab many before his playing days are over.

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