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Alex Pihlstrom’s huge gain pays off for Illini

Glenbard West grad Alex Pihlstrom made a successful transition from walk-on TE to earning a spot on Illinois’ offensive line.

Alex Pihlstrom (75) came to Illinois as a walk-on tight end and now has earned a scholarship as an offensive lineman.
Alex Pihlstrom (75) came to Illinois as a walk-on tight end and now has earned a scholarship as an offensive lineman.
Provided by Illinois Athletics

When Alex Pilhstrom came out of Glenbard West, there were questions about whether the tall, skinny kid could be a Power Five tight end.

Maybe the question should have been: Can Pihlstrom be a Big Ten offensive lineman?

The answer to that one is a resounding yes.

With Illinois’ offensive line ranks stretched thin because of COVID-19 issues, Pihlstrom made his first career start at left guard two weeks ago against Purdue, and last week he was awarded a scholarship.

It’s the latest stop on Pihlstrom’s unconventional journey to college football’s big time.

“The story is great,” said Chad Hetlet, Pihlstrom’s coach at Glenbard West. “He was a really good football player, but to move him down inside ... “

Pihlstrom bet on himself coming out of high school when he turned down some FCS offers — including a half scholarship from Eastern Illinois — and walked on at Illinois.

“I really thought I could go somewhere bigger,” he said, ”I really wanted to go to the Big Ten because of my dad (Mike Pihlstrom played at Minnesota from 1984-88).”

So Pihlstrom went to Illinois, where he redshirted in 2017 and didn’t see game action in 2018. He made his collegiate debut last year, playing in one game at tight end.

But Pihlstrom and his coaches saw a future elsewhere, based on his scout team play.

In Glenbard West’s run-heavy offense, “I never really worked on being a receiving tight end,” Pihlstrom said. “Blocking was my best skill set.”

Pihlstrom was 6-6 and 185 pounds coming out of high school. Taking advantage of the Illini’s nutrition and strength programs, he added bulk and fared increasingly well in blocking drills.

One of the people who noticed was Illini head coach Lovie Smith.

“I had a chance to see Alex quite a bit,” Smith said. “He came to work hard every day, came to practice and did a good job.”

So the plan was for Pihlstrom to bulk up enough to hold his own in the trenches. Like most plans in 2020, it wound up changing because of the pandemic.

“I started to gain weight around last October, November,” he said. “I probably got up to 265 before quarantine.”

That still wasn’t big enough to play on the line, so Pihlstrom headed home to Glen Ellyn to eat and train on his own.

His diet? “Every morning, probably four, five eggs, two bagels. (And) I love the chicken ravioli my mom makes.”

There also were “lots of burgers” plus Chinese takeout: “Chicken broccoli with an order of pot stickers.”

It took a while to adjust to the weight gains, which aren’t done yet. “I still want to get up to where I should be for a Big Ten O-lineman, 300-315 (pounds).”

In the meantime, Pihlstrom continues to work at his craft with the help of teammates who have been playing up front much longer than him. One is fifth-year senior center Doug Kramer, an old rival from their West Suburban Conference days.

“I’ve known him since Glenbard vs. Hinsdale (Central),” Pihlstrom said. “I’ve always admired him, the way he does his work.”

And the Illini coaches admired the way Pihlstrom adapted to his new role. Two days before last week’s game against Minnesota, Smith gathered the Illini at the end of practice and broke the news that Pihlstrom was a walk-on no more.

“We didn’t give him a scholarship,” Smith said. “He earned a scholarship.”

Hetlet can’t wait to see what comes next for his former player.

“(Well), 6-6 is 6-6,” Hetlet said. “It’s not going to change. You move an athletic, long kid (to the line), he’s tough enough to play inside. I really think the sky’s the limit.”