Offensive Line A Strength For Fighting Illini

One of the strengths of the Fighting Illini team this year is its offensive line. Four and possibly five starters return, and maturity is extremely important in the line. Offensive line coach Joe Gilbert hoped to develop depth this spring, and it appears some progress was made in that area.

The Illinois offensive line has four starters returning from last year. Jeff Allen is a three year starter at weakside tackle, and fifth year guard Jeff Cornell started last year. In addition, junior Graham Pocic started every game at center, and junior Hugh Thornton has started games both at guard and tackle.

Illini offensive line coach Joe Gilbert sought additional development from his most experienced linemen, and it appears he got what he wanted.

"I think we've had a solid spring. I think the four guys we're leaning on to kind of be the core all improved. They had things to work on as they came in, and they all got better.

"They've worked their tails off, not only on the field, but the amount of time they've put in on their own watching extra film, really learning the offense. They have studied and really understand the defense, see what they're doing.

"I think every kid has improved from a technique point and a knowledge of their position. So it's exciting to see what will happen in the fall."

The value of experience and maturity is obvious with these upperclassmen. Having the same offensive line coach and same offense two years in a row is helpful also.

"It has become important to them. There's no question us being in the same system is a huge, huge plus. All those factors play into it."

Junior Corey Lewis, who became a tackle starter as a freshman, sat out last year with knee surgery and missed all spring with repeat surgery on the same knee. It is hoped he can recover in time for most if not all the 2011 season. In his absence, two redshirt freshmen split time at the position this spring.

"Obviously, the strong tackle spot, Simon Cvijanovic and Michael Heitz have improved. Is there a clear-cut guy that's come out? No. I think if we were playing tomorrow, we'd probably have both those guys play. Get a feel for who's got a hot hand and go from there."

Six linemen saw every snap in 2011, and senior Ryan Palmer played half the year with a broken hand. Gilbert wanted more depth, and he feels a couple players are starting to develop.

"As far as the younger guys, I think that by the time we get out of Rantoul, we'll have a couple guys that will give us a little bit of depth."

One who has made major headway is junior Tyler Sands.

"He has. Tyler Sands has really had a good spring. A year ago he was a guy that was pounded around a lot, couldn't really make some plays in space. This year, whether he's been a guard or a center, he's done a tremendous job.

"You can see he's done a great job in the weight room with Coach Lou. He's gotten stronger, been able to finish and change direction. He's one of the guys that will definitely see some playing time this fall and give us some depth."

Sophomore Andrew Carter was beginning to catch on, until a major concussion ended his spring prematurely.

"He was starting to progress pretty good. He started to understand what we were doing a little bit better and was coming along. Obviously, he still has a ways to go. It's disappointing that the amount of time he missed is gonna set him back a little bit."

Two redshirt freshmen are farther behind.

"Alex Hill has had an up and down spring. He's got to figure out the speed of the game yet. I don't think he's quite done that. He's got some ability. He's got some football smarts and awareness about him. But from the every day coming out and competing and playing and finishing, he's got to figure that out. He's not where he needs to be yet.

"Shawn Afryl is behind him. Shawn's taken awhile to get the information processed, but he's made strides. He's light years from where he was when we first started. Hopefully he has a great summer."

Jake Feldmeyer is a backup center, but he still needs to add strength and bulk to his smaller frame.

"Jake's got to have a great summer in the weight room. He knows what to do, work his tail off. But he's lacking from a physical strength standpoint. He might still be a summer and fall away from where he's ready to go."

Illini players can't receive coaching from Gilbert again until Camp Rantoul. They get to work with Strength and Conditioning coach Lou Hernandez but are otherwise on their own. Gilbert says it is still a good time for improvement.

"The one thing about these guys, they can improve so much between now and August 4th, it's unbelievable...if they work at it."

Gilbert is pleased with the progress of the Illinois offense despite missing several key performers part or all of spring.

"It's hard when you lose two playmakers like Darius (Millines) and A.J. (Jenkins). And Jason Ford was out for most of the spring. And then Zach (Becker), and we missed Jay Prosch for a little bit there. It's hard to get a continuity of what you're really good at.

"But I think we've got a pretty good feel for what our guys can do. Nathan (Scheelhaase) has progressed really well. I think overall the offense has improved pretty good."

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