When tackle Corey Lewis was lost at the end of spring ball with knee surgery, Illinois was down to only three tackles with experience. And Hugh Thornton, forced to play tackle as a true freshman, had returned to his more natural guard spot. The Illini needed senior Ryan Palmer to come through at right tackle, and he did. He acknowledged the yeoman effort of the line starters and how they remained a unit the whole season.
"Yeah we did. We went out there every week and tried our best."
Palmer needed to make major improvements in the off season to play his role properly. He dedicated himself to that goal.
"I was just grateful to go through a whole season. The big thing in the summer was working my tail off and not leaving here with any regrets."
Palmer made it through the season, but not without physical problems. The linemen knew they had no backups, so they all toughed it out.
"We're all a little banged up; that comes with playing football. You've got to play with the pain, manage the pain. Taking a Tylenol helps, and getting a lot of treatment in the morning."
Actually, pain relievers were not enough for the oft-injured Palmer.
"I broke my finger against Michigan. I've had the cast on for about 5 weeks. I hope the cast will be off for Baylor. It will help me a lot."
A lineman must have both hands to function properly, but Palmer's left hand was unavailable the last few games. As a right tackle, his left hand is especially essential. With the cast, he tended to slip off defensive ends charging the quarterback.
"It's really hard. With rushers on the right side, you need the inside arm set. When you can't, you always go off to the side. You have to be careful (not to be called for a hold)."
The broken finger isn't his only problem.
"I've also been having some Achilles problems. I'm getting treatment on that. I've just got to manage the pain when I'm out here."
Since it was his last year with the Illini, surgery was out of the question.
"That's why I decided not to do the surgery. It's my last year, and I want to make the best of it. Finish off strong I guess."
The Ohio native is pleased with how much better the offense played this year compared with 2009.
"Yeah. Last year with guys getting hurt, guys not doing the right things including me. But we got together and are finishing off the year strong."
The highlight of the year for the offensive line was blowing holes in the Northwestern defense large enough to produce 519 yards rushing, including 330 by Mikel Leshoure. Palmer and his line mates were lauded for their effort.
Unfortunately, Illinois ended the regular season with a disappointing loss at Fresno State. The offense did not fare as well in that game, and the linemen struggled at times.
"(Against Fresno) we were prepared, but they twisted us up the middle. They set up twists between the guards and the center, and we took time picking it up. That's why our passing right now is a little shaky. That's why we're coming out here practicing to get better."
Opposing defenses put 8-9 defenders in the box specifically to stop the Illini running game. The Illini still gained ground rushing, but the pass offense struggled. Palmer admits defenses found ways to limit success by filling the box, but he blames inadequate pass protection for a number of botched pass plays.
"I think in part they were trying to put on some pressure. If they feel they can pressure us and get the job done, they're gonna keep doing it until we stop it.
"There were some missed assignments out there, guys not blocking the right guys, and we had some guys coming free. Put pressure on Nate (Scheelhaase), and he has to scramble and make quick decisions."
Palmer will play his last Illini game against Baylor in the Texas Bowl, but he cares about future Illini teams. He believes the offense will be even better next year.
"The offense will be great. We've got some great guys coming back, and we've got 8 home games. They start off with a pretty easy schedule to begin with, so I think they can have a great run."
With Palmer and line mate Randall Hunt graduating, the offensive line may still be thin next season until younger players develop. But the ingredients for a quality group are there.
"Corey (Lewis) will be back. And we've got some guys that can step up like Craig Wilson, who's been a solid tackle, and a guard like Hugh Thornton who can step up and get the job done."
Two freshmen tackles have caught his eye as well.
"Mike (Heitz) and Simon (Cvijanovic) have a bunch to work on, but they have great work ethic. That's the number one thing you need when you're a freshman. They have a great future if they'll just keep at it."
What about Palmer's future?
"It all depends. It's a big question mark right now. My parents are talking with some agents, and I feel like I should train. Why not give it (NFL) a shot? If that doesn't work out, I'll get on the job market. My degree is in Communications."