CHAMPAIGN — When Jamal Milan was helped off the practice field in training camp with a knee injury, the look on his face was that of a man who feared for the worst.
How could he not? He's seen this movie before.
He played in one game as a freshman in 2015 before a season-ending injury cut his campaign short.
“Once you go through it once, you kind of know what to expect," Milan said. "When I went through it, I thought it was worse. After going through everything, they told me it wasn’t worse than I thought it was."
Milan, a redshirt junior from Chicago Raby, played in 10 of 12 games in each of the next two seasons, though, establishing himself as a 6-foot-3, 305-pound anchor in the interior of the Illinois defensive line.
After missing the first four games of this season, Milan returned last week against Rutgers, providing two tackles and a big boost of motivation for the Illini (3-2, 1-1).
“It was so exciting, just being able to run around and be with my guys and getting my first tackle," Milan said. "Getting that feeling, it was overwhelming."
Missing those games was depressing, Milan said. He knew he could do something to help the defense, which entered last week as the worst run defense in the league, before moving up to 12th in the Big Ten, allowing 194 rush yards per game.
Milan's personality is contagious. Teammates feed off of what he does and how he acts.
“He’s been here since our freshman year, helping me out with things," defensive lineman Tymir Oliver said. "Just to be on the field with him again, you need that. You need an older guy who is more experienced and can take on blocks, tell you what to expect, what’s happening.
"Having him on that field helped us all. Seeing him happy made the whole D-Line happy. That’s the happiest I’ve seen him in a long time."
Head coach Lovie Smith said at his weekly press conference on Monday that the team "probably played him a few more plays than we initially thought we would his first time out there."
Milan can help anchor the run-stopping game, but Smith hopes he can elevate the pass rush. Illinois has just eight sacks on the season, which is tied for second-to-last in the conference.
“He’s not in any type of football shape," Smith said. "That’s why I can’t wait to see him this week. We’ll need him to take another step. We’ve talked about our D-Line. We’re not pleased with our D-Line play, especially rushing the passer right now. Jamal needs to lead that."
Milan is the quarterback of the defensive line, and showed it with his play, holding Rutgers to 119 rushing yards.
In the first quarter, Milan had a back-side pursuit on a third-and-2 play that picked up the first down, but only by an inch, avoiding a big play.
Then in the third quarter, Milan identified a screen play and hounded Rutgers running back Jonathan Hillman, allowing Illinois defensive end Owen Carney to pressure quarterback Artur Sitkowski for an incomplete pass on third-and-14.
The next play was a missed Rutgers field goal.
“He kind of stabilized us in our interior of our defense," Illinois defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson said. "Being able to occupy a couple blocks and making plays in the run game. He really did a nice job for us and really helped us in terms of our run fits and our run game."
Milan knows his value to the team extends beyond stats. While he was sidelined, he watched, identified and analyzed why opposing teams were able to run at will on the Illini.
He said it was a combination of little things that added up. Milan can help with that.
“Me being the guy that I am, I really like to work on doing things right and when I do things right, it really helps the team a lot," he said.
The defense trusts Milan.
“Jamal, we know when he comes in that he’s going to execute and do everything to the best of his ability. We trust him to always do his job and that’s exactly what he did — and some."
The next task is Saturday when the Illini host a Purdue team that averages 169.8 rushing yards and is third in the Big Ten in total offense with 490 yards per game.
“Being able to do everything right, doing the little things," Milan said of the key to containing the Purdue offense. "Obviously their offense is pretty good and our defense is pretty good. We have to do the little things better."