Illinois' Allen slims down and steps up

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

RANTOUL, Ill. -- It might come as a surprise that Illinois head coach Ron Zook identifies the offensive line as the position group that could make the biggest jump from 2008 to 2009.

After all, the Illini lose multi-year starters at arguably the two most important line positions, center and left tackle. Second-team All-Big Ten performers Xavier Fulton and Ryan McDonald are gone, leaving two sizable gaps to fill.

Enter Jeff Allen.

Not many true freshmen start on the offensive line in the Big Ten, but Allen earned the top spot at right tackle last fall and started nine contests for Illinois. His responsibilities will increase this year as he moves to left tackle, where he'll protect quarterback Juice Williams' blind side.

"It's a big step," he said, "something I was looking forward to coming in."

Allen, who was named to several freshman All-America teams after the season, surprised himself with how quickly he transitioned to the college game and picked up the offensive scheme. In fact, his toughest task last year took place before he locked horns with an opposing defensive lineman in a game.

"When I first came in, in high school I really didn't do much conditioning as far as lifting weights or running," he said. "I was a little overweight."

Allen checked in at 335 pounds but quickly slimmed down as he entered Illinois' strength and conditioning program.

"They didn't rush it on me," he said. "They just told me to continue to work, and the weight started to drop. Then they started to set goals. 'You're at 320 now. We want you to try to get to 315 and play at that weight and see how it feels.'"

Allen got down to 310 pounds and has maintained his weight throughout the offseason.

"I know I can move better," he said. "That's one of the biggest things by me losing weight, to show my athleticism."