Matt Stevens, IlliniGuys Staff Writer
August 27, 2022
Date/Time/Place: Saturday, Aug. 27, 2022: 3 p.m. CST, Memorial Stadium
Surface: Field Turf
Records: Illinois 0-0; Wyoming 0-0
Betting Line: Illinois by 13.
Series notes: Illinois and Wyoming are playing on the football field for the first time in history.
TV: Big Ten Network; Brandon Gaudin (play-by-play), Joshua Perry (analyst), and Rick Pizzo (reporter).
Radio (Illinois): Brian Barnhart (PBP), Martin O'Donnell (analysis), Michael Martin (sidelines) & Steve Kelly (Pre/HT/Post) » The broadcast can be heard live on TuneIn online radio, Sirius/ XM satellite radio & SiriusXM Internet and at FightingIllini.com.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Alex Pihlstrom remembers very well the week he knew he’d be getting his first career start at Illinois.
And it’s not a fond memory.
Just before the start of the Thursday practice before the home opener against Purdue during the 2020 season shortened and defined by the coronavirus pandemic, Pihlstrom was watching team trainers and medical personnel walk out certain of the Illini roster who had just tested positive for COVID-19.
“I remember the trainers, doctors and everybody with masks were telling Doug Kramer to take his gear off and walk without out of the locker room and I knew he wasn’t going to be playing,” Pihlstrom said. “I then started to do the math in my head and began putting together that if Doug wasn’t playing then Kendrick (Green) would be playing center. And then that meant oh…”
It was that realization that led Pihlstrom, a former walk-on tight end, knew he’d be getting his first career start at offensive guard against a Big Ten Conference opponent.
“Practice that Thursday was crazy because it was hard to get my mind right,” Pihlstrom said. “I kept thinking that I wanted this so bad but not this way. And my teammates kept telling me to stay calm and treat this like it was just another game but it was hard to think that in a perfect world they didn’t want me in there. In a perfect world, Illini fans wanted Doug at center and Kendrick Green back at guard. They wanted BP at quarterback.
Pihlstrom would make it through that 31-24 loss to the Boilermakers by playing nearly every snap at the left guard spot and then would make one other start at the position in a chaotic 2020 campaign. Not a week after that first career start, Pihlstrom was awarded a scholarship by then-head coach Lovie Smith - a moment that meant more to him than that start against Purdue on Oct. 31, 2020.
“I called my parents immediately both times but the feeling of being able to tell them ‘hey, I’m on scholarship’ was so rewarding,” Pihlstrom said. “I still felt like a pandemic caused that first start. I was confident I earned that scholarship.”
And that word, confident, is something Pihlstrom has been battling internally for what has seemed like his entire six-year playing career at Illinois since arriving as a walk-on, unrated prospect who was a two-year letterwinner at Glenbard West High School.
When Bret Bielema was hired in Dec. 2020, Pihlstrom said he wasn’t sure if he was the type of athlete, body type and leader that this new Illini staff had in mind. However, that attitude was exactly the opposite they wanted a veteran player to have as they attempted a rebuild of the Illinois football program at a key position group for Bielema’s coaching philosophy
“It’s been a process with Pihl, that’s for sure,” Illinois offensive line coach Bart Miller said. “We had some serious talks during that first season about what our expectations were for him and it became clear that we thought he could get to a level that he maybe hadn’t thought of was possible. I remember telling him, ‘Alex, you’re not that walk-on tight end anymore. That guy no longer exists'.”
That description - walk-on tight end - is a phrase Pihlstrom still uses a lot to describe himself but as Illinois embarks on a 2022 campaign, the 300-pounder is being asked to handle one of the most important positions in an offense led by a Bielema program - center. Since 2008, Bielema has seen his starting center end up being drafted into the National Football League in every season except for two. Six different players with their hand on the football pre-snap (John Moffitt - 2008; Peter Konz - 2009-11; Travis Frederick - 2012; Travis Swanson - 2013; Frank Ragnow - 2016-17; Doug Kramer - 2021.
As Illinois opens up the 2022 season with a game against Wyoming (3 p.m., BTN), the Illini will have a new starter at every interior offensive line spot including Pihlstrom and the guard spots (Isaiah Adams - left guard and Zy Crisler - right guard). As Pihlstrom continued to work on his shotgun snaps throughout spring and into fall camp, Illinois never went to the transfer portal to investigate an update at the center spot. However they did go to the transfer portal for the quarterback he’d be snapping the football to on every play. Tommy DeVito, a graduate transfer from Syracuse, came to the Champaign-Urbana campus with his natural lifelong confidence and what Bielema categorized as his “New Jersey swag” in absolute contrast to Pihlstrom’s self-deprecating nature. During Illini media day earlier this month, DeVito noticed the blonde mustache that Pihlstrom has been sporting during preseason training camp, which Pihlstrom has admitted is designed after the ‘Rooster’ character played by Miles Teller in the newly released Top Gun: Maverick. DeVito walked up to Pilhstrom to say ‘Well, clearly I’m Maverick. I’m going to start calling you Goose’ and Pilhstrom’s response reverted back to his comedian nature.
“Well, that’s all good Tommy but um, it doesn’t end well for Goose in the first Top Gun movie,” Pihlstrom said. “He dies near the end.”
Pihlstrom will lead a projected starting five of the Illini’s offensive line heading into Saturday that averages nearly 6-foot-6 and 321 pounds - which compared to last season’s numbers would’ve had Illinois boasting the 11th tallest and biggest offensive line in all of college football.
“I’m just so damn proud of him and the work he’s put in to get to this spot,” Illinois sixth-year right tackle Alex Palczewski said. “That guy was my roommate early in our careers when we were just trying to figure everything out. From that moment to where he is now is a complete transformation. I’m expecting big things out of him.”
And maybe, for the first time as a college football player, Pihlstrom expects big things out of himself.
“I’ve grown more in life as a football player in this spring and preseason camp than I ever have before,” Pihlstrom said. “I learned so much from guys I played with who are now in the NFL like Kendrick (Green), (Nick) Allegretti and Doug (Kramer). My goal in this season is the same as them - leave this program better than when it found me. I’m pretty sure our group of super seniors have a chance to do.
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