Austin Weltha rotated in as a freshman, then split time with a teammate the following two seasons. The clock was running on his career as a McKendree University linebacker.
Weltha heard it ticking. He also saw that with the teammate having graduated, the opportunity to play full-time was there as a senior.
"I knew I was pretty locked in (as the starter)," Weltha said.
The Bloomington High School graduate prepared for the increased workload the only way he knows. He worked like crazy.
"I knew if I got tired I wouldn't want to come out or shouldn't come out," Weltha said. "That was in the back of my mind every time I was pushing for that last rep (in the weight room)."
The result was one of the best defensive seasons ever at McKendree. Weltha totaled 129 tackles, fourth-best in school history, and was named the Great Lakes Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
He also was a first-team all-Super Region Three selection by the Division II Conference Commissioners Association.
"I didn't really shoot for all that," Weltha said. "I was going to try to have the best season I could and do everything I could for my team.
"I just tried to do my best every game and if it was enough, those accolades would come along with it afterward."
Weltha led the 7-4 Bearcats with 12½ tackles for loss and had five interceptions. He returned three interceptions for touchdowns, including a 94-yarder on Senior Night against Quincy.
The five interceptions and three TD interception returns tied school records.
"That was very unexpected (the return TDs), but it was awesome," said Weltha. "I was just trying to get to the end zone as fast as possible."
Catching and running with the football was not new to Weltha. He played tight end at BHS in addition to starring at middle linebacker.
Weltha was at outside linebacker the first five games this season, but injuries to two inside linebackers moved him to middle linebacker for the rest of the year.
The 5-foot-10, 220-pounder set a career high with 21 tackles at Davenport University on Oct. 14 and tied that mark in the season finale at Truman State. His 11.7 tackles per game ranked fifth in NCAA Division II this season, and his 287 career tackles were third-most in McKendree history.
He was quick to point out he had a lot of help.
"The front line was amazing," Weltha said. "They took up their blocks and did what they had to do.
"The other linebackers were shedding blocks and forcing things back and forth. We were one of the top five scoring defenses in the nation. That was real good on our part."
Weltha is a Division II All-America nominee and will learn soon if he is selected to the team.
He will graduate in May with a degree in business administration. His plan is to return to Bloomington-Normal, begin work on his CMT certification and pursue a goal of becoming a firefighter.
Weltha will enter that new challenge with a positive feeling about his final football season, though his honors were not the first for the family of Paul and Anne Weltha.
Austin's sister, Ellie, has racked up numerous awards and honors as a four-sport athlete at BHS. An Illinois State softball recruit, she also has been a standout in basketball, track and field and, most recently, volleyball.
"She was saying how I was doing so well (this fall), but at the same time she was doing amazing things back at BHS," Weltha said proudly. "She started playing volleyball this year and she's first-team all-conference. That's pretty impressive."