Previous breakout candidates:
- WR Dionte Taylor
- CB Jaylen Dunlap
- LEO Carroll Phillips
RANTOUL, Ill. - Pardon this reporter for waiting a few weeks to talk with Chris Boles, who often has been lauded as a great personality inside the Illini locker room.
But early training camp praise about the fifth-year senior offensive lineman’s play had to be met with healthy skepticism. Boles, a Toledo native, hasn’t played a snap of offense in his first four seasons in Champaign. Heck, his only playing experience came last year when he played three games -- on the field goal unit.
Now, all of a sudden he’s supposed to be the Illini’s starting left guard?!
Even Boles understands the skepticism.
“It’s kind of crazy,” Boles said. “You can’t write this stuff, like they say. This stuff is kind of crazy. I’m just glad I’m getting an opportunity. I’m just going to keep working hard and keep it.”
At 6-foot-4, 320 pounds, Boles certainly looks the part of a Big Ten offensive lineman. He has the thickest legs of anyone on the team, even after he slimmed down a bit this offseason.
But what’s changed to make Boles go from llast season playing on the third-string offensive line (behind a pretty subpar second string) to starting this season?
First, Boles finally is in decent football shape.
Due to an academic issue with the NCAA, Boles arrived late (with just four practices remaining of training camp) for his true freshman season, so Ron Zook’s staff understandably redshirted him.
The following spring, Boles suffered a broken foot and missed the the entire next training camp, crushing his conditioning and burying him on the depth chart.
The following offseason, he suffered a broken foot again, requiring surgery -- costing him yet another offseason and training camp.
At times, Boles said the injuries left him deflated, like this college football thing might just never work out for him.
“It really did, but I had some great roommates, Reilly O’Toole, Matt LaCosse, Pat Flavin, Donovonn Young,” Boles said. “Those guys just pushed me, man.”
Three years in and Boles’ college football career really hadn't even started. He didn’t actually get adjusted to football practice until last season.
“After going through all of last year, not getting hurt, actually getting to do some workouts, I didn’t feel like I had to learn football all over again,” Boles said. “I really just hammered down on the playbook, got to know the plays and tried to make plays when I was out there.”
Then, Boles’ opportunity finally arrived.
This spring, the senior was still buried on the depth chart when Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit put Boles -- known as a more slow-footed lineman -- at left tackle. Boles opened some eyes.
“I think they really saw how athletic I was,” Boles said. “Coach Cubit telling me, ‘Woah, we put you at left tackle, it’s like a different you. So I need you to do that when you go to left guard.’ I’ve just been trying to do that as much as I can.”
Re-energized, Boles spent a lot of time this summer with four-year starting guard Ted Karras to work on his craft and make the most of his opportunity.
“Now, he’s getting a real shot,” said Karras, a team captain. “He’s never really gotten a consistent shot. He’s proving himself being the (starter) through these first two weeks of camp.”
Teammates and coaches say Boles always felt like part of the team. He was one of the go-to guys to help in recruiting. Teammates would take recruits to Boles’ place, where the big offensive lineman would challenge the high-school prospects in the video game NBA2K -- and crush them playing with either the Oklahoma City Thunder or the Anthony Davis-led New Orleans Pelicans.
“He’s been a leader on the team, even though he hasn’t been a big-time contributor,” Karras said. “He’s a very liked guy on the team. Now, we finally get to see him out there.”
Illini head coach Tim Beckman makes the seniors speak in front of the team at training camp and said Boles’ message stood out.
“He spoke about his want, his ability to prove people wrong,” Beckman said. “We’ve always believed in Chris. We just wanted to see him fulfill some of those dreams, and he’s doing that right now.
“I think it’s just all come together for him. I don’t think much has changed. He always kind of struggled a bit with the conditioning and the weight. But he hasn’t had those problems (recently). I think he’s gotten used to what’s wanted. He’s done a good job with that.”
Two weeks into camp, it’s apparent that the staff isn’t just using Boles as some motivational tool to get more out of the younger candidates at left guard. Boles has taken almost every snap at left guard with the four solidified starters: left tackle Austin Schmidt, center Joe Spencer, Karras at right guard and right tackle Christian DiLauro.
Redshirt freshman Nick Allegretti, the starter at left guard most of spring practice, has settled into the versatile backup center/guard role as he continues to develop. Junior college transfer Zach Heath and senior Chris O’Connor also are in the mix for guard reps.
But Boles continues to hold down the starting spot.
“I haven’t had the opportunity since high school, so it’s great to have it right now,” Boles said. “But I just got to keep working hard to keep because those guys behind me, they’re definitely trying to get my spot -- which is making me better and making them better as well.”
Boles has the most power of the guards in the competition. He will be tested in pass protection -- especially protecting the injury-prone and not-so-mobile Wes Lunt -- but has appeared at least serviceable in that role too.
Believe it or not, it appears to be Boles’ time for the Illini.
“It’s kind of shocking, man,” Boles said. “But I’m just trying to stay humble, keep grinding and just trying not to lose the spot. I’m just trying to do my job and be one-fifth of the o-line.”