Fayson leaves Florida roots behind, improves during senior season

Jarred Fayson stepped out of his new Champaign apartment in 2008 — and it was cold.

“It definitely was culture shock,” the Florida native said. “You go from palm trees and blue skies to trying not to fall on the black ice.”

Fayson had just enrolled at Illinois in January of 2008 after spending two seasons at the University of Florida, and it was his first winter outside of the sunny Southeast.

Fast forward nearly three years and Fayson is now a senior and the leading receiver on this year’s Illinois football team — and is finally used to the cold.

“It feels like I’ve been here forever,” Fayson said.

Fayson’s path to Champaign began during his sophomore year at Hillsborough High School in Tampa, Fla., when he first met current Illinois head coach Ron Zook, who was then the head coach of the Florida Gators.

The rising high school prospect attended several high school camps held by Florida, and Zook began to recruit Fayson to play there.

But Zook was dismissed in 2004 and was replaced by Urban Meyer, who continued to recruit Fayson for the Gators. Fayson, who was one of the nation’s highest-rated recruits, committed during the fall of his senior year to play for Meyer and the Gators.

As a freshman, Fayson was a part of the 2006 Florida Gators team that won the national championship. During his sophomore season he lined up at wide receiver and running back, as well as being a returner on both punts and kickoff returns. Fayson played in 11 of 13 games, hauling in 12 catches for 148 yards, including three touchdowns.

But unhappy with his limited playing time, Fayson gave a call to Zook, who was then in his third season as head coach at Illinois.

“You have to live with the decisions you make, and I don’t regret anything about it,” Fayson said. “Things have worked out well for me.”

Due to NCAA regulations, Fayson had to sit out the 2008 season but retained two full years of eligibility.

In 2009, in his first season with the Illini, the coaching staff hoped for Fayson to make an impact alongside then-junior and current NFL wide receiver Arrelious Benn. But injuries hampered most of Fayson’s season and he finished with 16 catches for 218 yards.

Seven games into his final season of college football, Fayson has developed into one of the team’s top receivers, leading the team with 28 receptions so far for 239 yards.

“Jarred’s done a really good job this year of improving,” offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “He’s improved his overall ball skills a lot and he’s worked hard at being a leader. We’ve been real happy with him and he’ll continue to work hard.”

Both Fayson and Petrino said Fayson’s elevated level of play this season is a product of losing weight during the offseason. Fayson, who has four percent body fat, went from 220 pounds last year to 205 this season.

“This year we thought it’d be best if he lost a little bit of weight,” strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez said. “The deal with that was as long as he could maintain all his strength numbers, we could have him at that little bit of lighter weight.”

Fayson said adding too much muscle in the weight room had been taking its toll, and he was losing flexibility in his hips on the field.

“It’s helped him on the field,” Petrino said. “It’s made him more flexible and made him faster. I think that’s made him get a lot better from the spring to the fall.”

Coaches have not only noticed Fayson’s level of play on the field but also his emerging leadership off of it, notably with the team’s younger receivers.

“I think not only has Jarred helped us on the football field but he’s helped us in the locker room,” Zook said. “He’s helped us in his leadership and he’s helped us with his work ethic.”

Fayson said he has been eager to take on the leadership role, even referring to the freshmen receivers as his “little brothers.”

“Some of the things that are new to these guys — the grind of trying to come in day in and day out — I’ve obviously been through all that,” Fayson said. “I just try to tell these guys that I’ve been there, I’ve been tired, I’ve felt like crap. They just need to know that you need to keep coming, keep pushing, and keep getting better.”