CHAMPAIGN — The days of Bobby Roundtree being a baby on the Illinois defensive line are over.
He's not the same kid who had never played a football game in the snow until last year, or the kid who caught grief from his teammates for playing in the snow on campus — he's grown up.
He burst on the scene in the first two games last year, tallying three of his four sacks against Ball State and Western Kentucky, but his next sack didn't come until Week 12 against Northwestern.
The first game set the bar for Roundtree. He got a taste of what a sack in Division I college football felt like.
"That was my first college game straight out of high school and seeing what I can do with all these grown men," Roundtree said. "It felt great. After that I wanted to do more every game, bring something to the team that’s going to give us a better chance of winning."
He finished the year on the BTN.com All-Freshman team with 50 tackles, four tackles for a loss, four sacks and three pass breakups.
But there was still something in Roundtree that didn't feel complete.
“Seeing what I could do and thinking about what I could have done better or what could have helped me be a better person, I felt good about it, but I also have this weird feeling because I feel like I could have done way better," Roundtree said.
Roundtree's plan is simple: Double all of his stats from last year and win more games.
In order to do the latter part, the Illini need to stop the run.
Not a day that goes by without new defensive line coach Austin Clark reminding his group the Illini ranked last in the Big Ten in run defense last year, allowing 218.5 rushing yards per game.
Roundtree and the rest of the defensive line don't always need reminded, they know exactly where the Illini ranked in rush defense last year, and that it's a priority to shore up this season.
“That’s embarrassing to me, coming in last and everything," Roundtree said. "We’re all trying to put in the work and trying to turn this whole program around."
Stopping the run isn't only the next step in Roundtree's development, but also in the development of the Illinois defense.
Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson knows his unit needs to force opposing offenses into those uncomfortable third-and-long situations.
“It’s important for us to play well on first and second down," Nickerson said. "(Roundtree) has been really dialed in on that and worked really hard along with the rest of the guys and we’re getting better there."
When Clark came to Champaign after a two-year stint with the University of Southern California and one year as a recruiting assistant at the University of California, he fired up film of the defensive front.
In Roundtree, Clark saw flashes of domination, using his length and strength to bully offensive linemen. Now Roundtree has to channel those flashes to be dominant in both facets of the game — run stopping and pass rushing.
“Be a dominant player every single play," Clark said. "Don’t just be a third down, finesse guy. That can’t be our M.O. here. We've got to be guys who want to put our hands on people every single day, strike blockers, get off and make plays."
The history between Clark and Roundtree dates back to when Roundtree was in high school at Largo High School in Largo, Fla.
Clark, who was a recruiting coordinator at Cal, was on the recruiting trail for Roundtree and saw glimpses of his potential.
“You saw those same flashes you saw on his high school tape, just being able to use his leverage — he’s so long," Clark said. "We want to use that in the run game and the pass game."
Those flashes are becoming consistent, and the ceiling continues to get higher and higher.
“He’s doing a heck of a job, starting to use his hands," Clark said. "We’ve really challenged him with that. For us, he’s going to be a heck of a player."
The line boasts depth, giving the Illini the ability to cycle in players at will with trust.
"We’re going to attack every play 150 percent," Roundtree said. "We’re trying to help the back guys — the linebackers, corners and safeties. We’re out here hunting and trying to make it easier for those guys and get three-and-outs."
NOTES: Freshman quarterback Matthew Robinson stepped in and made several big passes, including a long touchdown to Carmoni Green. ... Freshman defensive back Dylan Wyatt was helped off the field with an apparent knee injury. ... Quarterback AJ Bush had a pair of passes, including a deep pass, to receiver Trenard Davis. ... Delano Ware, Jartavius Martin, Ron Hardge III and Dele Harding each came up with an interception.