Illinois offensive line coach Joe Gilbert developed a functional unit that paved the way for running back Mikel Leshoure to set a single season rushing record in 2010. Considering how few linemen were ready to contribute, Gilbert was extremely pleased with the outcome. The starters did yeoman work.
"They did. Knock on wood, we stayed relatively healthy. We played six guys on everybody. Randall Hunt got a little banged up going into the Penn State game, and Hugh Thornton and Jack Cornell ended up playing there. Jack was banged up at one point, so Hugh ended up playing, and vice versa. It worked out well.
"The three guys that took every single rep the whole year were Jeff Allen, Graham Pocic and Ryan Palmer, except for the nine plays when he broke his hand at the Michigan game there at the end. They made it work."
With Corey Lewis forced to miss the season due to knee surgery, Palmer stepped up and made a big contribution.
"He really came along his senior year. At the end of his junior year, he came in and said, 'Coach, I'll do whatever it takes to go out and have as good a senior year as I can.' He did that, he had his best off season.
"I just wish for him the light would have come on a little bit sooner. Only he prevented himself from being a really good player because he just didn't prepare himself until going into his senior year."
The other senior wasn't highly rated going into the 2010 season either. But Hunt not only held his own, he was selected to a post season bowl game and played well there.
"Randall doesn't say very much, but he's a smart football player, he's a physical football player. He's a guy who wouldn't shock me for possibly end up getting drafted, getting into a camp and end up being on a roster somewhere."
Lewis required arthroscopic surgery on the same knee during the winter, so he may not be back for spring ball. But assuming he is healthy by fall, Gilbert has the makings of a solid first string line again this year.
"With Corey Lewis coming back, Corey's got game experience. And then we've got the other four guys. Jeff Allen, I don't even know how many games he's started already, but he's basically been a three year starter. And I think he's one of the better linemen if not the best lineman in the Big 10.
"And then you've got Jack and Hugh at the guards and Graham at center. Those kids are working their tails off right now in the weight room."
Gilbert says his young linemen benefitted from the 15 extra bowl practices. They need all the work they can get to add depth by fall.
"The extra practice does help, there's no question. The kids get a chance to work on technique and improve that part of it. We had parts of practice where they actually ran our offense. It was a chance for them to keep that fresh in their minds.
"That's huge because our young guys are gonna be our backups this year. It was important to have that extra time so they could kind of develop a little more."
In Lewis's absence, there are only three athletes available to help Allen out at the two tackle spots this spring.
"With Corey being out right now, we'll open it up for three guys, Michael Heitz, Simon Cvijanovic and (walkon) Nate Swanson. All three of those guys are gonna get a ton of reps this spring. At this time, we are not considering moving Thornton to tackle."
They certainly lack experience and physical development, but Gilbert his excited about his two redshirt freshmen tackles.
"I think Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic are doing a great job. They're getting stronger, and they're both putting on some weight since the season ended. I think Michael is thicker, bigger and stronger. Simon and is a little bit better athlete. So they both bring their differences to the table.
"I think both of them are smart kids and understand what to do. It's just a matter of whether they can hold up physically in the Big 10 as redshirt freshmen. It's hard for anybody to do that."
Junior Tyler Sands played a few snaps at center two years ago but saw no action in 2010 backing up Pocic. He and a redshirt sophomore will battle for playing time this spring at center, while Sands could see double duty.
"Then at center you've got Tyler Sands and Jake Feldmeyer. Tyler will play a little bit at guard and work at center along with Jake.
"Going into spring, Sands would probably be our number two center. He was all year. Tyler's a smart kid, he knows the offense and knows what we're doing. He's got to improve his flexibility and his athleticism. It's not from a lack of toughness, it's just a matter of being able to be in position to make a play."
Feldmeyer lacks the height and frame most linemen possess.
"That's the big thing. Jake has to get stronger. He's another smart kid, he knows what to do. It's just a matter of whether he can hold up and do it. This off season will be big for him, and the summer."
With Sands also listed #2 at a guard spot, Gilbert is looking for another second teamer.
"One of those two, or two of those three have to come along at the second guard position. We just don't have a lot of depth. Hill will do both guard and center. Tyler and Jake have been at center now for two years, so Alex would have a little bit better chance of playing early for us if he's a guard."
Redshirt freshman Hill was a center in high school. He arrived at Illinois overweight and has been working on getting in better shape. If he can do that, Gilbert believes he can contribute.
"There's no doubt. When we saw him off film in high school, he definitely had the quickness. That's something we're trying to work on right now in the off season. But if he doesn't, I know we'll at least have a chance to get him at the center spot."
Carter was highly rated out of Tallahassee, Florida, but the redshirt sophomore has yet to find his niche at Illinois.
"Andrew's got to grow up a little bit from the standpoint of being more consistent in everything he does on and off the field. That's number one. Number two, just from an athletic standpoint, we're working on his flexibility, understanding the offense better. Those things that he can control and play at a faster rate and give a little more effort.
"I think he's got ability, and he's doing a great job in the weight room. It's coming around to his time, and he's got to grow up and really take ownership in the things that he can control."
Craig Wilson toiled four years at offensive tackle, and it was presumed he would be first backup again this year. But Wilson is being tried on defense this spring and may stay there.
"We did move him to defense. When you look at Craig physically, he's got to be able to help us. We decided to move him to the defensive side of the ball and see if he could do something there to help us. If not, you may see him back. If he does come back, I think we'd give him a shot at guard. Athletically and size, there's no question."
Spring will begin to answer those depth questions. In part two, Gilbert discusses his entering freshmen. He is excited about their long-term potential.