Small-town Heitz making big impression

Michael Heitz is making the most of his opportunity while Corey Lewis rehabs. Scott Boehm/Getty Images

When a football recruit comes from a program like Maine South or Mount Carmel, he's often given the benefit of any doubt. As for products from smaller, unknown schools, fans are less optimistic.

Illinois redshirt freshman offensive tackle Michael Heitz experienced this firsthand. Coming from V.I.T., which has an enrollment of 102 students and needs to co-op with another school to field a football team, he heard what fans were saying about him.

"‘Who is this kid?'" Heitz said. "‘Why are we offering him?'"

It's those sort of comments that have placed a chip on Heitz's shoulder. Although Illinois hadn't planned to start Heitz so early in his career, he's been given an opportunity to quiet the doubters this season and has started all seven games at offensive tackle for the No. 23 Illinois while Corey Lewis continues to rehab from an ACL injury.

"I feel like I have proven some people wrong," Heitz said. "I still have a long way to go. I feel at the moment I've done really well."

Illinois offensive line coach Joe Gilbert has seen Heitz make strides since arriving to the program from V.I.T. During Heitz's redshirt season, Gilbert worked with Heitz to get him prepared for the Big Ten.

In one year, Heitz added nearly 40 pounds, had his technique improved and learned how to play against a higher caliber of defensive linemen.

" I think the biggest difference is the level of competition," Gilbert said. "Obviously, Michael had played against smaller schools. An adjustment to the speed of the game is a huge factor for somebody. Obviously, the exposure to all the different things. We run a ton of different things. From a mental standpoint and then having to pick up the technique and everything, those are the three things I would say are the biggest adjustments for a kid coming from a really small school."

Heitz has room to grow, especially in his pass protection, but Gilbert was certain Heitz would continue to get better due to his work ethic.

"Coming in as a farm kid, he knows how to work," Gilbert said.

Heitz's family owns farmland in Vermont, Ill., and it's where he learned about an honest day's work at an early age.

"I just have always been taught you got to work for what you want," Heitz said. "I always saw my dad go out and work every day and seen him with the all the things he's accomplished.

"During our busy season, we're trying to pull out crops and putting in 12-14-hour days. We sleep for 5-6 hours and work for another 12-14 hours. You have to keep going."

Illinois senior guard Jack Cornell has been able to relate to Heitz and help him along. Cornell also attended a small high school, Quincy Notre Dame, in Illinois.

"Me and him come from the same part of the state from a small school," Cornell said. "We both kind of feel like we got something to prove that we can hang here in the Big Ten. A lot of people think just because we went to 1A-4A schools we can't play here, but I think we're both proving that wrong."

Heitz hopes other small-school players will be inspired him.

"I always try to tell people all the hard work and effort will get you there," Heitz said. "Hopefully, they learn from it. Hopefully, they can take my advice."