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‘Everybody has to be ready this year’: Pihlstrom reflects on journey to starting role

A few months, 45 pounds and hundreds of thousands of calories later, Alex Pihlstrom got his first start on the offensive line last Saturday.

Craig Pressman

It’s only been a few weeks, but one major takeaway from the 2020 football season is to always be ready. With many key players out last week due to positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing, the Illini learned this quickly.

Alex Pihlstrom was told Thursday afternoon that he would be starting Saturday’s game on the offensive line.

“Coach Smith said the news of Brandon [Peters], and I was like, ‘well Doug [Kramer] is out, I guess I’m in,’” Pihlstrom said.

His second time on the field comes after switching from tight end to offensive line. Tight ends coach Cory Patterson made the suggestion, and Pihlstrom got to work on gaining weight.

Being home in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, for quarantine, Pihlstrom got a lot of home cooked meals to help him put on the extra pounds. His favorite meals were take-out Chinese and his mom’s ravioli and chicken.

“Quarantine was rough on my mom because she had to make so much food for me. She was not used to making all that food,” Pihlstrom said. “I’m like ‘Mom, I need more. I know you’re making for the whole family, but I just need as much as I can right now.’”

Over the last eight months, Pihlstrom gained 45 pounds while on a 5,000 calorie diet, putting him at 285 pounds. He also learned everything he could about his new position.

Last year, Pihlstrom played one game at tight end. Now, as a redshirt junior, he was starting on the offensive line with a few days notice. He had two walkthroughs before Saturday’s game, but naturally there were still some nerves.

“I was thinking about last year against Rutgers. Actually, the only play I played last year I caused a penalty, so I’m like, ‘just don’t do that,’ but I just wanted to go as hard as I could the first play and try to not worry about making mistakes and all that. After that first play, I felt pretty comfortable,” Pihlstrom said.

With fourteen of his teammates out, he knew he had to be ready. As a walk-on, Pihlstrom wanted to prove that he could compete at this level.

“I’d love to play on the field. I’d love to get my shot, so I’ll do whatever it takes,” Pihlstrom said. “Over these past eight months and these last 45 pounds, I’m trying to learn everything I can about O-line. It’s crazy to me to think that this is my third month being on the field. I’m learning something new every day. I just want to be a sponge.”

Pihlstrom mentioned teammates like Doug Kramer, Verdis Brown, Alex Palczewski and Kendrick Green as people who he has been able to learn from. Being new to the offensive line, their experience has helped him adjust and improve.

This Saturday, Illinois will face Minnesota, where Pihlstrom’s father played football from 1984-88. While a lot isn’t known regarding who will be playing, Pihlstrom knows he needs to be ready.

“I think with me and Coran [Taylor], it’s just next man up and everybody being ready. Preparation comes from that. We knew something like this could happen, every college football team did,” Pihlstrom said. “Especially this year with the protocols, everybody has to be ready this year — doesn’t matter who it is.”