CHAMPAIGN — Last year before the season opener against Ball State, Bobby Roundtree was a nervous freshman unsure if he would start.
Ahead of Saturday's season opener against Kent State (11 a.m., Big Ten Network), Roundtree knows exactly where he stands — at defensive end at the top of the depth chart.
"I’m more confident," Roundtree said. "I’ve been here for a year, and I played all the games. I’m not as intimated."
Roundtree is a microcosm of the Illinois football team.
They're still young, with the highest percentage of underclassmen in the nation at 76.5 percent and the fewest upperclassmen (24) and seniors (8) in the country. But most of the sophomores and juniors have valuable game minutes under their belt.
After starting 16 true freshmen and playing 22 freshmen in total last season — the most in the nation — those players, like Roundtree, have turned into more experienced sophomores.
On the defensive side of the ball, it's led to a deeper understanding of defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson's scheme.
“Guys understand what we want to get done," Nickerson said. "It’s not new, it’s not foreign to them. You have guys who have been in the system. They understand what a week’s preparation is going to be like. That, I think, is going to be a huge difference."
Even the "old guys" of the defensive line last year, Tymir Oliver and Jamal Milan, were sophomores, and the game has slowed down for them, too.
It's not a complete product, but the young Illini are further along this year than last, when they were hunting for a game routine.
Now some of those young, experienced players can dole advice to the true freshmen.
“They’re not only understanding what we want to get done, but they’re the guys that the true freshman that are going to be playing, they’ll be able to (say), ‘Hey, you need to watch out for this. This is what you need to do,'" Nickerson said. "They can offer that leadership for those guys."
The freshman push isn't over. Head coach Lovie Smith said more will be coming this season, but the number won't touch the 22 who played last season.
Freshmen like defensive backs Sydney Brown, Jartavius Martin, Dylan Watt, Kerby Joseph and Delano Ware each figure to find time this year to go along with a host of other freshmen.
“Our freshmen defensive backs, first it’s a talented group," Smith said. "We thought they’d come in and they were who we thought they would be after we got on the football field with them.
“We’ve seen daily improvement. When you’re young and you learn so many things, first off you start out with talent. Then we start teaching them exactly how we want them to play."
The offensive line, one of the team's youngest positions a year ago, returns as a more cohesive unit.
Nick Allegretti is the leader of the offensive line and Alex Palczewski, Vederian Lowe and Doug Kramer each have game minutes under their belt. Kendrick Green, after converting from the defensive line, rounds out the team.
“We feel very confident," Palczewski said. "All of us, with the exception of Kendrick Green, we’ve all played a lot. Kendrick Green has been working his tail off all summer and all year. He’s going to do very well for us this year."
Now the Illini are settling in, ready for the second year of the youth movement, and a year that Smith said the Illini will win more games.
An older, wiser team has goals in place.
“I feel like everyone is more comfortable," Roundtree said. "I see the guys are hungry. I feel like we’re going to change this program around."