RANTOUL, Ill. – Four of the Illinois offensive line starters are easy to spot.
Ted Karras has 31 career starts at right guard. Junior center Joe Spencer has 14 career starts and will likely add more than 20 more before his career is over. Redshirt sophomore Christian DiLauro, a possible future pro, and junior Austin Schmidt started their stewardships as the Illini starting offensive tackles (DiLauro on the right and Schmidt on the left) during the second half of last season.
Finding the fifth starter, however, is one of the Illinois staff's toughest tasks during training camp.
To the surprise of many Illinois observers, Chris Boles currently is repping with the first string at left guard. The 6-foot-4, 320-pound senior has only played three games during his Illinois career, with all his playing time coming on the field-goal protection unit.
Boles has struggled to crack a really thin two-deep the last two seasons. So what's changed?
“He's a big guy who's a good athlete who's graduated,” Illinois offensive line coach Tom Brattan said. “I thought he had a good summer. If his number's called, he'll have to step up and see what he can do.”
It remains to be seen whether Boles has finally turned the corner or whether the staff is just employing a motivational tactic for the expected competitors for the starting left guard spot, the one open job on the Illinois offensive line.
Redshirt freshman Nick Allegretti started most of the spring at left guard and was thought to be the frontrunner for the job. But the talented underclassman is adjusting to the new responsibilities of actual playing time.
“It was a little different, just a different mentality overall,” Allegretti said. “Freshman year, having a redshirt season, I was trying to learn the plays, I was trying to get better but overall I knew I wasn't going to actually play on Saturdays. This is just a mentality shift from a freshman learning the playbook to regardless of if this is my redshirt freshman year, I'm going to try to play in the Big Ten. I have to play like a senior and play mature.”
He will be pushed by junior-college transfer Zach Heath, who missed last season at American River C.C. in Sacramento and part of spring practice with Illinois due to a shoulder injury. Heath lacks a lot of experience but has size (6-foot-4, 300 pounds) and plays with a physicality that the coaching staff likes.
“It's healthy competition,” Heath said. “Everybody's working to making each other better, but the best guy's going to play. Whoever's the best guy, he knows he's outworked all of us, but we're going to be cheering him on. He's our brother.”
Added Allegretti: “You have a bad day, a bad attitude, they go ahead and replace you. They replace you with another kid who's a Big Ten scholarship football player. Everybody that's competing with you is a great football player, so it's a good situation.”
Beckman called the left guard battle a three-man race but two seniors, Pat Flavin and Chris O'Connor, also could provide emergency options. Flavin started two games at right tackle last season but repped at guard during the spring. O'Connor played sparingly last season and his practice time has been limited as he continues to recover from an injury.
Four-star freshman Gabe Megginson eventually could provide an intriguing option at guard, but he currently is sidelined in a noncontact practice jersey with a minor knee injury suffered during the offseason. Beckman said Megginson, who wore helmet and shoulder pads during Monday's practice but did not go through offensive line drills, had swelling on his knee and the staff is holding him out as a precaution. The staff hopes Megginson can play tackle in the future and would like to redshirt the Jacksonville native – “I think that's always a benefit for an offensive lineman,” Brattan said – but Megginson may be too talented to sit on the bench for too long, especially if the Illini suffer any injuries.
“You don't want them to play as freshmen,” Brattan said. “I think it's really hard, no matter how good you were in high school. It's a completely different world from a physical maturation point as well as from just what they've got to see. The game has evolved quite a bit. People aren't sitting in just one defense and one blitz. I kind of say it's like 'Star Wars' out there. You don't know where they're coming from. You've got to be able to pick 'em up, get hats on hats and get a push.
“Right now, it's like we have a huge hose and we're just throwing knowledge at them and they're trying to absorb it the best they can.”
The good news in the Illini's search for a fifth offensive line starter? They have options. The team's second string is much stronger than last season's weak second group.
But the Illini don't need more backups. They need another Big Ten-quality starter.The Illini have a few weeks to find out if one will step up.