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Illinois Rutgers Football

Illinois running back Mike Epstein (26) is congratulated by teammates after scoring a touchdown on Oct. 6, 2018, at Rutgers. Greeting him are Nick Allegretti (53) Austin Roberts (36) and Kendrick Green. Illinois won 38-17. (AP Photo/David Boe)

URBANA — Illinois coach Lovie Smith hasn’t been shy about praising redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Kendrick Green this offseason.

At Big Ten Media Days last month, Smith gave ringing endorsements about Green’s progression in just a year playing on the offensive line in college. Through the first week of training camp, Smith has not changed his tune.

“It’s been exactly what I thought it would be,” Smith said. “He took to the offensive line. He jumped up on the radar after he got over there. It’s not like he went through a long transition period. He was one who right away you saw the potential to be an outstanding player. Nothing has said otherwise.”

The nature of the compliments weren’t striking for Green’s dad, La Mont Carroll. He raised Green to have a strong work ethic, but that’s still not how Carroll sees Green. He doesn’t see his son as the 6-foot-4, 310-pound behemoth who started all 12 games at left guard last season and is among the strongest players on the team. He sees the kid who ran around by his side at the grocery store growing up.

“It’s not shocking, but they look at him as a big strong mammoth of a dude and I look at him as a little kid,” Carroll said Monday.

That isn’t at all who Green is now, though. He moved from the defensive line to the offensive line during training camp last season as a redshirt freshman and immediately took off. He carved out a starting role and was in the lineup for Week 1 against Kent State, overcoming some butterflies before taking his first offensive snap.

Green has gotten stronger and more confident since then while playing in a position that seems like a natural fit. He played both sides of the line at Peoria High, but had an inkling that the defensive line wasn’t his forever home when he got to Champaign. He didn’t really tell many people, but he thought he would end up as a better fit on the offensive line. As it turns out, he was right.

“Destiny works itself out,” Green said.

Richie Petitbon III, who joined the Illini before spring practices as a graduate transfer from the University of Alabama, can’t even tell that Green is a relative newcomer to the position. This kind of move isn’t as seamless as some might think.

“Obviously Kendrick is a guy who was up to that challenge and he was able to pick it up with flying colors and he’s doing a great job,” Petitbon said. “I don’t know if I could switch to D-Line at this point in my career. Props to him.”

Entering his second year as the Illini’s starting left guard — he can also play center if needed — Green knows the system and is experienced playing in it. He’s improving his pass blocking technique, and the rest of the tools are there. Smith said Green checks off all the boxes he looks for in an offensive lineman.

Offensive line coach Bob McClain watched Green last season when McClain served as an offensive analyst. He’s seen Green grow by leaps and bounds despite playing the position in college for about 12 months.

“He’s where he belongs,” McClain said. “He’s a phenomenal talent for the offensive line.”

Green is studious. When he’s not in the weight room, being recorded by new strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez for his feats of strength, he’s studying tape of other offensive lineman. He’s a particular fan of the Pouncey brothers — San Diego Chargers center Mike, and Maurkice of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He wants to pick up the skills necessary to continue on his trajectory and live up to the praise Smith gives him.

“He always tells me, ‘Hey, you could be good. One day, you could be really good, you could play this game for a long time.’ I try to sit on that and think about that when I’m working out and working hard,” Green said. “If I’m going to make it, it’s up to me.”

Green is farther along now, of course, than he was a year ago.

“This is my second training camp, the whole spring ball and the whole Big Ten season, you learn a lot,” Green said. “I like to study in my off time anyway, study the O-Line. I feel like I’m picking up pretty well.”

No longer is Green the little kid who used to run at Carroll’s side and emerged as the heart of the Peoria High team that won the Class 5A State Championship in 2016. In fact, it’s hard to see much of the same person Green was as a freshman for the Illini in 2017.

“I can remember as a freshman, he couldn’t win any one-on-one drills and two years later he goes to the other side of the ball and he’s dominating D-lineman in one-on-one drills,” Carroll said. “It’s kind of full circle.”