Illinois senior linebacker Rodney Pittman thought his career was on the fast track as a freshman in 2005.

Illinois senior linebacker Rodney Pittman thought his career was on the fast track as a freshman in 2005.


By playing in all 11 games on special teams and earning spot duty at linebacker, the Fort Washington (Md.) Friendly High School product figured he would take a big step as a sophomore.


"I was thrown into the fire,'' Pittman said. "I thought the next year I would be playing right away. It didn't shape out that way. I played more as a freshman than my last two years here.''


The 6-foot-2, 242-pounder took advantage of one last chance this spring. Heading into the spring game at 1 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium, Pittman not only won a battle with redshirt freshman Ian Thomas for the staring spot at strongside linebacker, he's also one of the most improved players on the team.


Thomas was considered the early favorite, but Pittman earned the job by gaining 10 pounds in the offseason and showing off his knowledge of the defense. In Wednesday's mid-week scrimmage, he made the day's biggest hit. Pittman realized he was running out of time.


"It was my last chance,'' Pittman said. "I knew that going in. They're bringing in new guys here already. I wasn't worried about that. Coming into winter conditioning, I knew it would be my spot.


"It's your last year. It definitely hits you. It hit me that this is my last year, and I have to make a name for myself.''


After coach Ron Zook said the starting spot is Pittman's to lose, Pittman replied: "This is mine to keep.''


Pittman played behind starter Brit Miller the past two seasons. Miller moved to middle linebacker this spring following the graduation of star J Leman. Pittman was an early member of the recruiting success in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area under Zook and offensive coordinator Mike Locksley.


"He played a little for us as a freshman when we weren't real good,'' said linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch. "The thing I've always tried to tell him is you have to know what the heck you're doing. I think he does. You have to play hard and fast. He didn't always do that.


"This is his last chance. I want him to get on the field. He wants to get on the field. He knows the defense, and he knows where he belongs. It's his to lose, like coach said.''


There are other players who made significant improvement this spring.


Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. The junior attempts to become a threat in the passing game after two seasons when he was known as a run blocker. The former Bloomington Central Catholic all-stater's status was uncertain for the spring game though because of a sore hamstring.


Wide receiver Jeff Cumberland. After moving from tight end midway through last season, Cumberland is getting more comfortable -- and therefore more productive -- on the outside. He was the star of the spring's first scrimmage, catching five passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns.


Cornerback Dere Hicks. He wants to be more than the "other'' corner alongside star Vontae Davis. Hicks, a junior, grabbed two interceptions in last week's scrimmage, when he thought he should have finished with four picks.


Wide receiver Chris Duvalt. The converted defensive back showed an ability to catch passes, and he could become a reliable return man on punts and kickoffs.


NOTES: Fans should enter Memorial Stadium at the northeast and southeast portals. Seating for the game is on the stadium's east side, opposite from the major portion of the stadium renovation project. Parking is available at the Assembly Hall northwest and southeast lots. . . Tickets are $5 for the game and allow entry to other athletic events this weekend, such as softball, women's soccer and women's tennis. . . The scrimmage will be a battle of offense vs. defense rather that a true game, the same style as Illinois' session in Lemont last weekend. The Illini will mix the battles between starters and reserves.


John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.