Illini's Fulton saves his career with move from defense to offense
By JOHN SUPINIE
GATEHOUSE NEWS SERVICE
RANTOUL -- Had Illinois junior Xavier Fulton not made the switch from defensive line to offensive line last spring, his career might have been done.
"He was close to taking the train out of here,'' said Illini offensive coordinator Mike Locksley.
Now that Fulton moved from defensive end to left tackle, his career just might be starting. He is expected to start when the Illini meet Missouri in the season opener Sept. 1 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, and he may also someday play on Sundays in the NFL.
A mobile 6-foot-5, 296-pounder from Homewood-Flossmoor who has a 31 1/2-inch vertical leap and a 4.9 in the 40-yard dash, Fulton is experience away from an NFL career, said Illinois offensive line coach Eric Wolford.
"He has the opportunity to be a dominant player in the Big Ten Conference and play on Sundays,'' Wolford said. "I think he can be a star player up front for us.
"If he went to the NFL combine and jumped 31 1/2 inches and is a good player in the Big Ten, he's a pretty good chance to get drafted in the first two rounds.''
But first Fulton must learn the key position -- he protects quarterback Juice Williams’ blind side. Fulton gained nearly 30 pounds in the offseason, studied the playbook and enjoyed the second chance.
He started three games at defensive end as a freshman in 2004 and the first seven games there as a sophomore in 2005 before a season-ending knee injury that also led to him redshirting last season. Dropped to the scout team last fall, he felt "pushed to the side,'' he said.
"I was moping,'' Fulton said. "That was a huge shock. I didn't think that's what it would be like. For a while, I just wanted to get out of practice, go home, sit in my room and be by myself. I was really depressed.''
Illinois mentioned the possibility of switching Fulton to offensive line last season, then made the move the day before spring camp.
"I look at it as the last chance,'' Fulton said. "I'm really grateful.''
After bulking up, Fulton's next challenge is learning the position. He had help last spring.
"We were whispering in his ear on every down,'' Locksley said. "Now, he can get the calls from the quarterback and do what he's supposed to do.''
In Wolford's 14 years as a college coach, he can count on one finger the times a player made the move from defense to offense in spring ball and worked his way to the starting lineup.
"Left tackle is the marquee position up front,'' Locksley said. "That's your right-handed quarterback's backside blocker. He has our trust that he can do it.''
Likely, Fulton must rely on his quickness and athleticism to overcome inexperience at the position, he said. He also leans on senior left guard Martin O'Donnell for advice, but Fulton is "a thinker'' with leadership traits, Wolford said.
Senior Akim Millington shifted from left tackle to right tackle, since senior Charles Myles is likely to miss the season after offseason shoulder surgery. Sophomore Jon Asamoah is expected to start at right guard after playing in five of the last six games as a true freshman. Redshirt freshman Ryan Palmer appears to be the top reserve tackle.
NOTE: Former Illini defensive tackle and Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin star Josh Norris is working as a volunteer assistant this fall. … When Illinois practices at 3:30 p.m. today, the Illini wear pads for the first time.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.