Speedy Defensive Ends Help Cvijanovic Improve

The offensive line may be the biggest single concern coming out of spring ball for the Fighting Illini football team. There is a lack of experienced depth at the tackle spots, and Illini defensive ends exploited them at times in the Spring Game. Simon Cvijanovic has a year of experience and is the leader at left tackle. He must continue to improve, but he's making progress.

Simon Cvijanovic is one of those lucky few who can eat without gaining weight. He will be entering his third year at Illinois this summer, and he still must bulk up to reach 300 pounds. But since he and Michael Heitz are the only lettermen tackles, they hold down the two starting spots.

Cvijanovic says it helps knowing he is a starter at tackle.

"It feels good having a secure spot like that. It makes practice a lot more about working on my technique than trying to worry about impressing the coaches. It's a lot better now."

The experience he gained last fall gives him needed confidence. He knows what to expect now.

"Definitely, from playing last year to going into spring ball now, rather than not playing at all and going into spring ball last year, I know a lot more of what I'm going to see on the field."

Cvijanovic likes the approach Illini coaches are using with the players. That is especially true for his offensive line coach Luke Butkus.

"The new coaches, their whole philosophy is just to let it loose and play ball. Especially Coach Butkus, he's not too worried about technique. He's about letting it loose."

To say the least, he is a fan of his new position coach.

"I love the guy; he's a great coach. He gets us going and fired up pretty easily. He's a younger guy, and he played here. He can relate to us a lot easier.

"He's really emphasizing just coming off the ball really fast. That's going to fit into our offense really well. He's trying to get the o-line to be the real mean guys on the field. I love that. That's how it should be."

Cvijanovic realizes there are depth issues along the line, especially at the tackles. But he believes the Illini will be adequate there come fall.

"The guy right behind me would be Scott McDowell. Scott has a lot of potential, he's just undersized right now. And he needs to get his head into the playbook. He could be a good tackle.

"(Patrick) Flavin is on the right side behind Michael Heitz. But that could always switch; I could be a right tackle and Mike could be a left tackle. It doesn't really matter because last year we were playing right and left back and forth. So we're comfortable at both sides.

"I'm not really sure how the guys coming in are gonna be, but I think we're going to be all right. Some of our guards can also play tackle."

It's not surprising the Cleveland native has great respect for Illini defensive ends. They blew by him multiple times this spring. But that can be a good thing because he learns quicker going against top players.

"Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples are really stepping up strong. They've got a lot of get-off. They're fast, so it's hard to keep up with them."

He also sees potential in a Georgia redshirt freshman.

"I know from playing against Darrius Caldwell, he's a young guy and a really good d-end. He's got a lot of potential, but he's undersized."

Cvijanovic has seen the offense evolve in the spring and likes what he sees.

"So far, it's gone pretty good. We're picking up stuff really quickly, and there are not a lot of mistakes happening. From an offensive standpoint, we are getting into this offense pretty quickly. I think it's coming together really good."

What excites him most about the offense?

"Just the fast pace and the multiple options that the quarterbacks have in changing up plays and all the different options he has for each play. Nathan Scheelhaase is really athletic, so he can make things happen."

Cvijanovic struggled blocking Buchanan in the Spring Game, but few teams will be able to stop the senior this fall. Every day Cvijanovic goes against him, he learns. He is still a work in progress, but his learning curve should be fairly steep with practice.

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