Illinois offensive line coach Joe Gilbert has four veterans returning. The one remaining spot is a sticking point due to the extended injury absence of letterman Corey Lewis. Speaking on WDWS radio recently, Gilbert answered his most pressing question: who will be his starting strongside tackle this year?
"Corey is coming along fine with his rehab. I think the doctors are shooting somewhere between the end of September, maybe early October for him. Hopefully, if there are no other setbacks, we'll get him back at some point around the start of the Big 10 schedule."
That will be good in the long run, assuming Lewis enjoys full recovery and shakes off the rust quickly upon his return. In the meantime, two redshirt freshmen must fill the gap. Gilbert is optimistic Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic can do the job.
"Simon and Michael have had a great summer as far as lifting. Talking to the strength coaches, they're doing a great job. Both of those guys have their strengths and weaknesses. I anticipate it will be a great battle at Rantoul. I won't be shocked to see us probably playing both of them as we go through the early part of the season."
Both needed to gain weight and strength in the offseason.
"Heitz is 6'-6", 298. Simon is probably hovering between 285 and 290. He's 6'-5" to 6'-6", just like Michael. It's funny. Every day I ask both those guys what they weigh. I think they're sick of it."
The rest of the line is manned by quality performers. Seniors Jeff Allen and Jack Cornell plus juniors Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton all have the experience and ability to make the line an Illini strength in 2011.
"Those four guys coming back have really taken the bull by the horns from a leadership standpoint, a work ethic standpoint.
"Jack has done an unbelievable job the last year and a half of developing as a person and player. His work ethic, and the things he's doing in the weight room, are just really phenomenal. He really has emerged up front as a leader, along with Jeff Allen.
"Jeff Allen has got unbelievable potential. Jeff is down, he's the lightest he's ever been. I really think he's gonna have an unbelievable year.
"And then Graham and Hugh are only gonna be juniors. Both of those guys have had great summers lifting. A year ago, Graham had never played center before going into that first game with Missouri."
That last point is often overlooked when analysts study the 2010 team.
"People don't realize, we had a guy who never played center and a redshirt freshman quarterback touching the ball every single play. From that experience, those guys being a year older and better, it's gonna be a lot of fun. I'm excited about the potential we have."
Gilbert was asked if he thinks Allen and Pocic have the ability to play in the NFL upon graduation.
"I do. And you look at Hugh Thornton, who is probably the most athletic guy that we have. Hugh's 310 pounds, and he can run; he's got potential. And Jack, if he gets in the right system and has a great year, he has a chance.
"I'm fortunate, I really am. I've got a core group of guys who've got a lot of potential and bright futures for all of them."
Another important factor is knowledge of the offense. The players all have a year in the system now.
"The biggest thing is we have a system in place now. We have kids that understand the terminology, and they feel comfortable. I think the biggest thing to me as a coach, when you're installing a new system, you have a tendency to try to get the system taught, get the plays taught.
"Now, this whole time in Rantoul, the older kids know the system, they know the plays. Now you really start honing in on the technique, the little things of each play to have every play be more successful. The kids are excited, and we're excited as coaches about that."
Gilbert also feels he is developing more depth along the line. However, he will be missing a fifth year senior. Craig Wilson was moved to defensive tackle. Gilbert says Wilson's former mates have problems blocking him.
"Craig's a great kid. His sheer size and strength, he's gonna be able to hold up inside. He accepted the move; he was excited about it. I know from the offensive line's standpoint, he's one big body to try to drive off the ball.
"So I think he's gonna be a lot bigger factor than people anticipate. You'll see him get better as we go through Rantoul. In spring practice, every practice he got better."
The Illini offensive line established the running game in 2010, allowing Mikel Leshoure to break records and become a second round NFL draft pick. Gilbert is convinced similar rushing totals are possible this year despite Leshoure's absence.
"I think Jason (Ford) has a lot of ability. At times he's gotten banged up a little bit, but he has a chance to be a great running back. He's working hard at getting his weight down to improve his speed. He should have a great senior year.
"We also have Troy Pollard, along with the two freshmen Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson. People are gonna see all four of those guys. It's like a basketball shooter. You get a guy that's hot, and you're gonna feed that guy."
After a couple years with only six home games, the Illini have eight games scheduled for Memorial Stadium this year. He was asked if that makes him excited for the season.
"It does. The schedule's set up pretty good for us. We've got a lot of tough games at home, but you've got the crowd behind you. You're not traveling and doing all those things, so it's all positive. It's exciting. We look forward to the challenge ahead of us.
"It's a cliché, but we have to take one game at a time. I think our players understand that. But it is exciting as you look over the whole schedule to realize we're going to be home 8 times. That's going to be a lot of fun."
Gilbert is also the Illini recruiting coordinator. He talks about recruiting in part two.