CHAMPAIGN (WCIA) — Julian Pearl can barely recognize a picture of himself from high school.
The Danville-native was 75-pounds lighter when he committed to play football at Illinois in April 2017.
“Just last week I was looking at a picture of me,” Pearl said during a Zoom call with reporters on Tuesday. “And I was like, ‘My forearm now looks like my bicep in high school.’ It’s crazy.”
Gaining weight was all part of his move to the offensive line for Pearl, who originally committed to the Illini as a D-lineman. He was just 235 pounds as a senior in high school, with dreams of playing D1 basketball.
“I was getting all this mail from football teams, and not one basketball letter, so I was like maybe I should direct my energy towards football,” he said.
“What I loved about him was that he was a big athlete,” Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said. “Thought he could really turn into an outstanding offensive lineman. He’s waited patiently and we’ve seen him develop quite a bit.”
Now at 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, Pearl has played in every game this season, but prior to last week, it was primarily on special teams. That was until starting right tackle Alex Palczewski left the field with an injury at Rutgers. Pearl stepped in, helping the Illini run for 338 yards, the most in a game since 2018. Other than two penalties, Pearl said he was happy with his performance.
“I just felt like I was in high school again, taking snaps that were meaningful,” Pearl said. “It felt good to contribute. I’ve got big shoes to fill ahead of me, I got to step it up.”
Palczewski’s status is uncertain heading into this weekend’s game at Nebraska, the senior has started 40 straight games for the Illini. Even if he can’t go, center Doug Kramer has plenty of confidence in Pearl, who would make his first career start against the Huskers.
“He’s grown a lot in the past couple years and he plays with a lot of aggression,” said Kramer. “And he gets after it.”