Illini notebook: Zach Becker hoping his feet don't fail him this season

John Supinie

They come here with no scholarship but big dreams. A handful of them every season, maybe 10, 15, 20 players who join the Illinois football program without a scholarship.

Junior Zach Becker made the short trip from nearby St. Joseph-Ogden High School intent on ovecoming the long odds, and he quickly made a contribution by filling a role at fullback as a freshman in a one-back spread offense short on blocking backs. The early highlight was a short touchdown reception as a freshman.

But entering his third year in the program and first with a scholarship and the possibility of playing at fullback and tight end, Becker has only one request.

"Feet don't fail me now,'' he said. He already underwent surgery twice to repair broken bones in both feet, and he's still trying to get into shape after missing much of the summer following surgery in the spring.

Listed as the starter at tight end, Becker also works as a fullback in offensive coordinator Paul Petrino's pro-style scheme. Essentially, Becker is an H-back, a hybrid fullback-tight end who can line up in the backfield, on the line or go in motion. His thorough knowledge of the offense makes the 6-foot-3, 248-pounder a versatile cog primarily as a blocker.

"That way, they don't have to rotate personnel,'' Becker said. "They can leave me in there.''

Sometimes players fit into systems better than other guys, offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said.

Said coach Ron Zook: "He's the smartest guy on the team in terms of GPA. He's a smart football guy, too.''

Now, if only his feet would cooperate. He first noticed foot pain after his freshman season, but his feet felt fine during the summer conditioning program and Camp Rantoul last fall. A couple games into last season, he left foot hurt. He played through the pain and stayed off his feet over Christmas break. On the first day quarterbacks and receivers returned to the practice field in January, the pain returned.

X-rays revealed the fifth metatarsal broken in both feet. He underwent surgery, then returned for spring drills. By the spring game, they were hurting again.

"It never fully healed,'' Becker said. "There were screws in there to keep them from breaking. They were fractured all the way into the screws. I didn't start running until three weeks ago.''

He's got a few pounds to lose to regain his playing shape. That's not a concern in the Camp Rantoul heat. The worry is about his feet, although Becker must keep it out of his mind.

"I told the guys I have to break in my new feet,'' Becker said. "I can't worry. If I do that, I won't play hard. In the back of your mind, you always think you'll reinjure it. That's what this camp is for. I have to get confidence in my feet.''

Now that Becker has his foot in the door, he can't afford for his foot to get in the way of living his dream.

CAMP RANTOUL: Illinois changed the practice schedule, moving the workout Tuesday from 3:30 p.m. to 10 a.m. because of a forecast calling for excessive heat and a chance of thunderstorms. Cloud cover helped the Illini during Monday's practice, but coach Ron Zook wasn't ready to take any chances.

"What are you trying to accomplish?'' Zook said. "Are you trying to get better as a football team, or are you just trying to have them survive?''

Junior tackle Corey Lewis faces an uphill battle at playing this year after undergoing ACL surgery following spring practice, Zook said. Lewis might learn the offense in walk through, but he's limited to conditioning and rehab.

Even if Lewis continues a quick recovery, "it would be pushing it, but we have to wait and see

it would be pushing it but we have to wait and see.

Lewis, who played in all 12 games last season, might not have enough time to let the knee heal.

"It would be pushing it, but we have to wait and see,'' Zook said.

MEN'S BASKETBALL: Illinois hosts North Carolina at 8:30 p.m. on Nov. 30 in an ACC-Big Ten challenge game on ESPN. Gametimes for the 12th annual made-for-TV event were released Monday. The non-conference portion of the Illinois basketball schedule might be announced Tuesday.

Illinois senior center Mike Tisdale is in New York with the U.S. select team, a 10-man roster of college players who scrimmage against the national team while it prepares for the World Championships.

IN OTHER NEWS: Illinois junior Samanatha Sloan is qualified for the U.S. Women's Amateur at Charlotte (N.C.) Country Club. Plays starts this week.

John Supinie can be reached at