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Doug Kramer used to unconventional starts

The Illini’s center is ready for his senior season.

NCAA Football: Nebraska at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — If there’s a senior who has seen the most change in the Illinois program over the past four years, it’s Doug Kramer.

The Hinsdale native had an unconventional route through his recruitment. Kramer originally committed to Florida Atlantic, but quickly took a different path when Illinois interim coach Bill Cubit gave him an opportunity with a grayshirt spot. When Lovie Smith took over in 2016, that grayshirt turned into a scholarship.

“[Doug’s] journey was even more challenging,” Smith said on a Zoom call Friday afternoon. “You know, initially, he came in as a grayshirt really, we put him on scholarship right away, he’s just earned everything. When you can snap, I mean that’s pretty special. He’s an athletic center who can do a lot of things. Pulling in, getting in the space, but he’s also strong inside. A lot of times as a center you have a nose guard right on you. He’s just everything you’re looking for and more people are taking notice to what he can do as a center.”

Kramer agreed that the beginning of his college career was an adventure, and he had to endure some rough beginnings.

“The first little grayshirt part, that was definitely the craziest just because there was a lot of uncertainty,” Kramer told the media Friday. “I didn’t really know what was going to happen. Once I got here, I had a lot of help. It was really just locking in and doing everything I could to accomplish my goals that I had when I was growing up and watching the team and as a fan of the university. The first few years were kind of a whirlwind. We had to play early on and a lot of growing pains showed, for sure. We put ourselves in a position now where we can do some pretty special things this year.”

While Kramer has grown into his leadership position over the years, his 6-foot-2, 300-pound frame may be unconventional for some programs, but Smith said that ‘good weight’ matters more to him than a simple measure of pounds and height.

It doesn’t seem to bother Kramer much either; he’s confident in his position.

“The biggest thing about that is, ‘so what?’ It doesn’t matter,” Kramer said. “Use it as a motivation if you want or just brush it off. At the end of the day, you’re going to be the one in there blocking the guy. It’s more important to focus on what you can do on the field, how you can be the best player you can be than focus on the undersized thing.”

Kramer’s size is much less of a concern to him than trying to remain healthy for a season that starts in less than four weeks amid a global pandemic.

But when it comes to reservations about playing, Kramer has none.

“You know, a couple weeks ago when they were announcing the plans and stuff, you kind of have in the back of your mind like ‘Oh, how’s this gonna work how’s that gonna work?’ But you know right when you hear our athletic director talk and Coach [Lovie] Smith talks and the leadership of our university talks, I mean I have the most confidence in them and I feel completely comfortable playing this game this season.”

Kramer admitted some of the current precautions — like a protective shield inside of the cage of the helmets — make the game of football less normal than usual.

“After the practice I have spit and all that stuff that normally is, I don’t know where it’s going maybe on the defenders face but all that’s blocked. And then when we’re not on the field we take the helmet off, we pull the gator, but it’s just a face mask we pull that up.”

It’s a good thing the face masks are doing their job, because Kramer has one focus on the field.

“When I’m out there, I’m thinking about blocking the other guy across from me, not too much about the other stuff.”

Besides, Kramer is used to the beginning of a season being anything but normal. He’s focused on the now, more than the future may bring.

“I think we can do some special things. Not really sure what those are yet, but everyday as an O-line we aren’t thinking months in advance.”

His coach would have to agree to that testament.

“I’d want to be a quarterback and have those guys protecting me.”