Next Man Up

Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and A.J. Ricker are working hard in training camp to develop depth on the offensive line.

RANTOUL, Ill. - It's true that doubt still surrounds the Illinois offensive line, there's no questioning that.

After a few seasons of up and down performances, it's going to take time and success for questions about the unit to be erased.

One thing in it's favor, though, is the continuity established among the starting five dating back to spring drills.

The lineup of Simon Cvijanovic, Michael Heitz, Alex Hill, Ted Karras and Corey Lewis has remained the same throughout the offseason and August training camp.

While the top five is eager to prove it's worth under first-year coach A.J. Ricker, the cast further down the depth chart brings forth more questions that can't be easily answered.

Right now, with less than two weeks left before the season opener, the offensive staff is working hard to develop depth in the case of injury or attrition.

"Really A.J.'s job is go get that next guy and the next guy so that when you get in the season if you've got 10 guys you can count on, this is where you're going to find it out," offensive coordinator Bill Cubit said.

With 32 years of coaching experience, Cubit has developed a format for the ideal situation for offensive line depth.

"You always go in, I think two centers, three guards and three tackles, you'd say that's pretty good," Cubit said. "That's what we're trying to find."

So with the first five in order, who's in play to fit Cubit's formula?

Jake Feldmeyer is a trusted backup center, Cubit has said on a few occasions. The senior made four starts last season and, along with Lewis, has been cited as a leader for the group as a whole. So that makes six.

Recently, Patrick Flavin has received reps with the starters during two-a-days at right tackle in place of Lewis.

Given Lewis' six years and five knee surgeries, he doesn't need the reps nearly as much as Flavin, a 6-foot-7 sophomore that's said to be currently over 290 pounds.

"That's really helping Flavin," Cubit said. "Like I said to these guys, when Flavin's in there sometimes a second string guy when he's with the second team plays like a second team guy. When a second team guy goes with the first team, all of sudden, you know, sometimes he plays like a first teamer and he plays a little bit better."

Flavin makes seven.

A third lineup combination the staff worked with last week involved sliding Heitz to right tackle and inserting redshirting freshman Joe Spencer at left guard.

Another inexperienced player in the mix, Spencer is 6-foot-4, 290 pounds and awaiting his first taste of game action.

"That's the kind of things we're trying to do and mixing and matching," Cubit said. "Heitz, he's played four different positions on the offensive line. The other guys have to step up."

Spencer makes eight.

And anybody within earshot of the practice field last week probably knows the name Chris O'Connor.

Ricker could be heard yelling out different forms off motivation to the sophomore, a 6-foot-5, 280-pounder that, yes, he too, is awaiting his first snaps in a college game.

"Yeah, (Ricker) is pushing him," Cubit said with a laugh. "Push is a good word, because he has to be.

"It's amazing how some of those guys when sometimes your expectations are a little bit different and you put them on the first team, all of sudden they feel better, they play better and you're counting on them and you find some guys that normally you wouldn't have found."

So O'Connor is the ninth.

Others in play on the second unit include junior college transfer Dallas Hinkhouse and true freshman Austin Schmidt -- again, two players that haven't played a snap in a college football game.

It's not exactly a comforting situation, given the lack of inexperience and youth, but it's what the Illini offense is working with.

In the event a starter needs a replacement, Cubit said the mentality will be, 'Next Man Up.'

"Guys have to step up, they get scholarships," Cubit said. "They've got to go out and play."

Illini Inquirer Top Stories