Cvijanovic Still Battling For Starting Tackle

While Fighting Illini football coaches are hesitant to declare a winner in the race for the starting strongside tackle position, it appears there is a front runner. Redshirt freshman Simon Cvijanovic is candid in his assessment of the situation. He will play this season, but it may be as a backup at both tackle spots.

Simon Cvijanovic has worked hard to become the starter at one tackle spot on the Illinois offense this fall. However, he admits he may have fallen behind fellow redshirt freshman Michael Heitz.

"Right now, I'd say he's in front of me. He's been rolling with the ones, I've been rolling with the twos. But I'm still optimistic. Every day I'm trying to get better."

There is still time before the first game for Cvijanovic to make an impression. Illini coaches want him and Heitz to continue their competition up to game time.

"I feel like I've gotten better, but I think it's gonna come down to who plays good in the scrimmage, who's gonna keep playing good the next couple weeks."

It takes a long time to learn the complexities of offensive line. Technique is at least as important as knowing the offense. Playing against equally strong opponents requires quick reflexes and an ability to gain leverage on a competitor.

"Assignment-wise, I feel I know what to do pretty well now. I'm confident coming off the ball. But as far as technique, I'm still working on some things."

Perhaps the biggest problem for the Cleveland native is weight gain. Tackles must have the size and strength to battle inside against powerful defenders.

"Now it just comes down to getting stronger and putting some weight on. I weigh 280. It's a sore subject. It's hard to gain weight when I'm working my ass off out here. I've been taking shakes and stuff. Once we're not practicing so much, I'll start putting it on for sure."

Heitz has the size advantage, although both are in the 6'-6" range. Cvijanovic assesses his teammate.

"Heitz is doing good; he's gotten a lot better at pass blocking. Me and him both work on coming off the ball. Striking people."

Illinois line coach Joe Gilbert says both will play. At this time, Cvijanovic is capable of subbing both for Heitz and senior Jeff Allen. While Allen will see most of the snaps on the weakside, that may be Cvijanovic's ultimate position once Allen graduates.

"Jeff was out a couple of days. One day he was out the whole practice, so I took all of his reps."

He was asked whether he prefers run blocking or pass blocking.

"It goes day by day. Toward the end of camp, my legs were so tired I felt slower. But I feel pretty confident with both."

He admits pleasure in blocking for the Illini's talented running back corps.

"For sure. That definitely makes it a lot easier as far as wanting to come out and practice, with them running as hard as they are."

Like many others, Cvijanovic likes the experience and maturity of the other four line starters. Allen, Hugh Thornton, Graham Pocic and Jack Cornell have taken their games to another level this year.

"Jeff and Hugh mesh real well together. Right now, they're just working some sore spots out, but they're really handling those well. Jack and Graham are always making key blocks on the backside of plays."

While he knows there are still imperfections to be ironed out, Cvijanovic is excited about the potential of the Illini offense this season.

"As an offense, we're doing pretty good I think. And we've got our assignments down pretty well. It's just little technique things we've got to tweak. I feel very confident. I think we're gonna do really well."

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