Mix and Match O-line Proves Versatile

CHAMPAIGN – Continuity has been hard to come by along the Illinois offensive line this fall camp.

That doesn't bother coach Tim Beckman, who has combated the lack of stability with a host of versatile players.

In fact, the mixing and matching along the line plays right into the first-year head coach's preference.

"That's my philosophy of playing," he said. "We need to play more than just five offensive linemen all year. Our offensive line, we'll play seven to eight in a game so they can get set and ready for later in the season."

Minor, yet nagging injuries have forced the exploration of options. Senior Graham Pocic has been the player most on the move, having logged time at center, guard and tackle the past few weeks.

He's not the only one that's flexible. Senior Hugh Thornton, who has been limited in practice with an undisclosed injury, has the ability to play both tackle and guard. Sophomore Alex Hill and redshirt freshman Ted Karras have rotated at each guard spot, and senior Tyler Sands has manned both sides as well.

Depending on where Pocic and Thornton are, junior Jake Feldmeyer and sophomores Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic have filled in accordingly.

Joe Spencer, Tony Durkin, transfer Ryan Nowicki and others were seen working with the second-team unit Monday and will be counted on to add depth.

While where each player is practicing has constantly changed, nobody seems to mind filling in as necessary.

"That's a good thing because you never know when your name is going to be called," Thornton said. "We're all learning the positions and we're out here improving everyday."

Chemistry is often sited as one aspect all successful lines possess. With an increasing amount of shifting around, it's reasonable to question if a rhythm has been established and if it can be maintained.

Again, the players themselves quickly shoot down those doubts.

"Everyone has played next to everyone and can do that at any given time," Karras said. "Everyone seems good with each other."

Essentially the end result of the past three weeks of experimenting has left everyone without a designation. That's provided Beckman with the ability to put the best five players on the field, regardless of past game experiences or the positions formerly attached to each name on the roster.

"Luckily our schemes are simple enough or simplified so that players can play different positions," Beckman said.

Added quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase: "It doesn't matter as long as they get the job done. I think those guys have rotated enough and worked with enough guys that I think they're feeling pretty confident of the guys left and right of them."

Last season eight different linemen were employed as starters, with five different starting combinations used.

Thornton and Pocic have been prominent figures with the unit for years, having started a combined 51 career games. It's been there, done that for those two, as the duo has taken the lead in displaying a willingness to put the team's immediate needs above any personal inclinations.

"We've definitely been taking that leadership to the next level," Thornton said. "It's been good that the younger guys have bought into it. It's made for a good transition.

"I think we're making the steps and strides to be the offensive line this team needs us to be."


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