CHAMPAIGN - Christian DiLauro has never taken a game snap at left tackle at Illinois, while Austin Schmidt has not taken a game snap at right tackle in two years.
But with the duo entering their third seasons as the Illini starting bookends, DiLauro and Schmidt are learning how to switch sides. Not because the new Illini staff is searching to see if either is better on the flip side. New Illini offensive coordinator Garrick McGee simply asks the guards and tackles to switch sides depending on each play call.
In most offenses, including former coach BIll Cubit's, guards and tackles play on one side of the ball: left or right. In McGee's offense, the guards and tackles play "strongside" or "quickside." So DiLauro and his guard -- that's an open competition -- will always play on the same side as the tight end or the strength of the offense. Schmidt and the other starting guard -- also an open competition -- will line up on the weakside, without the protection of the tight end.
"It's just an opportunity for us to get an advantage on each and every play," Illini offensive line coach Luke Butkus said. "I'm not going to give many more trade secrets."
That change has forced DiLauro, Schmidt and the rest of the Illini offensive line to reboot their minds and muscle memory.
“Switching sides that’s definitely a big learning curve for me," said DiLauro, a junior. "The footwork isn’t so much that. It’s more technique-wise, keeping a balance set given the fact that I’ve never really been on the left side as much. Flipping sides really kind of confuses you and gets you a little off sometimes. Really, it’s just getting comfortable.”
Said Schmidt, a senior: “It’s the same position but the sets are totally different, so it’s something you really got to get used to. We’re getting it. At first it is (frustrating), but it’s a process. That’s what you got to understand, that it’s going to take time. It’s not something that’s going to even be done by the end of the spring ball. It’s going to take all summer.”
While the process can be frustrating for the Illini offensive line right now, it will make the Illini blockers more versastile -- possibly a boost to the draft stock of NFL hopefuls like Schmidt and DiLauro.
“Coach McGee came in the first day, I was talking to him, and he goes, ‘This is going to get you guys ultimately paid, if that’s what you want,’" DiLauro said. "I was like, ‘You got me sold right there.’ That’s a big game-changer for everything. That’s always in the back of my head. Coming out here, technique-wise everybody’s getting beat sometimes. It’s just about finding that comfort zone and we really haven’t found that six practices in yet.”
Butkus doesn't want his players to overthink the change though.
"It's still football," Butkus said. "We're still getting in a three-point stance most of the time and sometimes a two-point stance. We still have those wide five techniques and nine techniques. We're still pass pro. We're still running the ball. But I think the biggest transition is just the way we're teaching in comparison to the previous staff. We want guys who are going to be able to run off the ball and cover guys up."
McGee will have one of the more proven tackle duos in the Big Ten with DiLauro and Schmidt combining for 35 career starts (DiLauro 19, Schmidt 16). Both are plus pass protectors, helping Illinois rank third in sacks allowed percentage (4.12 percent) among Big Ten teams behind only Indiana and Nebraska.
“DiLauro, he’s a strong guy. When he gets latched on you, there’s really nothing you can do," said Illini defensive end Dawuane Smoot, who competes against Schmidt and DiLauro at every practice. "With Schmidt, he’s just a long, lanky guy. You just got to get your hands on him before he gets his hands on you. He really stops you dead in his rush with those long arms. They’re both a challenge every day.”
McGee prefers a power run scheme, much like former Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino -- who, like McGee, learned the offense under Bobby Petrino. But McGee takes over an offense that ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing (129.3 yards per game), and the Illini don't yet seem to have the big running backs and big tight ends McGee needs to run his preferred offense.
Following the graduations of four-year starting guard Ted Karras and one-year starting guard Chris Boles, the Illini are trying to find the right two players to place next to DiLauro and Schmidt and to either side of senior center Joseph Spencer.
Redshirt freshman Gabe Megginson is a frontrunner for one of the spots, though he has also repped at quickside tackle and could be Schmidt's eventual replacement. Redshirt sophomore Nick Allegretti and senior Connor Brennan also are getting a lot of reps with the first string. The depth is weak -- four freshmen arrive this summer but likely aren't ready to make an immediate impact -- which is why the Illini have shown interest in Michigan graduate transfer Logan Tuley-Tillman.
"We’re going to push each other to get better," DiLauro said.
The Illini offensive linemen are going through a bit of a reboot this spring. Day by day, they have to put one foot in front of the other. They just have to re-learn which foot to step with first.
“We got a little ways to go," DiLauro said. "We got that learning curve. We’re all trying to perfect our technique, trying to learn a new system. With this new staff, they’re going to get us in the right way. They’re going to get us going in the right direction to be dominant in the Big Ten.”