Position battle: Illini offensive guards

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner breaks down the competition for the two Illinois starting offensive guard spots.

Offensive guards

The favorites: Gabe Megginson and Nick Allegretti

The challengers: Zach Heath and Connor Brennan

Dark horses: Adam Solomon and Jordan Fagan

The Illini lost both senior starters at guard. Ted Karras was Mr. Reliable as a four-year starter. He was the most physical lineman for Illinois and may have a shot to play in the pros. His production will be difficult to replace in the short-term. Chris Boles was surprisingly serviceable last season -- a bonus for Illinois, allowing them to redshirt some freshmen -- but Illinois shouldn't experience a huge step back at that spot (after all, Boles played just three collegiate games before starting all 12 last season). New offensive line coach Luke Butkus is enlisted with finding their replacements. He has inexperienced, yet intriguing options.

Nick Allegretti, a rising redshirt sophomore, had the first chance at the starting spot last spring, but he proved unready to take over a starting spot as a redshirt freshman. The 6-foot-4, 305-pound sophomore has the size, mobility and physicality to play on the interior in the Big Ten, but he seemed a bit overwhelmed mentally last spring and fall. He did earn reps in every game last year as a rotation player though, which helped wet his feet. Allegretti projects as the future starting center once Joe Spencer graduates after this season -- and he'll likely back up Spencer this season -- but it's time for him to step up and make an impact.

Gabe Megginson, a 6-foot-5, 300-pound redshirt freshman, may project as a future offensive tackle. But with Christian DiLauro and Austin Schmidt entrenched as perimeter pass protectors this season, Megginson likely will begin his career inside -- and he could stay there. The former four-star prospect looked the part of a Big Ten offensive lineman when he arrived last summer, and Illinois needs more prospects like him. Megginson is big, strong, a little nasty and a plus athlete. He will have ups and downs this season, like most first-year players, but he should be the favorite to land one of the starting spots -- and may hold onto one for the rest of his career.

Zach Heath may have had an upperhand on one of the starting spots if he had not suffered a season-ending knee injury last September. He received a medical redshirt but will be limited this spring as he recovers. Heath, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound redshirt junior, isn't the most athletic, but he's physical, strong and reliable. He should return to full health by August training camp and his presence should push Allegretti and Megginson. Fellow JUCO transfer Connor Brennan looks like more of a depth piece but has the chance to make an impression on the new staff this spring. Another former JUCO transfer Jordan Fagan likely will back up one of the tackles but he has bulked up and has a big spring ahead.

The biggest dark horse is redshirt freshman Adam Solomon. Like Megginson, Solomon (6-foot-5, 315 pounds) certainly looks the part of a Big Ten offensive lineman. Like Megginson, the new staff must determine whether Solomon is a future tackle or guard. He has growing strength (especially after another offseason in the weight room) and physicality. He could be a future right tackle, but if he makes a big impression this spring, he could move inside and give the Illini some needed size and strength on the interior.

The Illini have enough depth to redshirt their incoming freshmen: Eddy FishKurt GavinJake Cerny and Darta Lee. Lee probably would be the most physically ready to play, but all should take a redshirt year to bulk up and push for roles in future seasons.

The bad news is that the Illini have no returning starting experience at guard. Actually, Allegretti is the most experienced lineman at the position based on his backup reps last season. The good news is the Illini seem to have some talented options and multiple options.

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