IlliniInquirer publisher Jeremy Werner is breaking down each Illini football position group, what they're looking to add at each position in the Class of 2017 and their top targets.
Now, let's look at the offensive line.
What Illini have on the roster
Illini offensive tackles Austin Schmidt, a senior, and Christian DiLauro, a redshirt junior, are a pretty good pair of Big Ten bookends. They also are some of the most experienced with a combined 35 Big Ten starts between them (DiLauro 19, Schmidt 16). They were a big reason Illinois ranked 24th nationally and third in the Big Ten in quarterback sacked percentage. Both are plus protectors and were OK in the run game, but both gained strength this offseason and look better off the ball in Garrick McGee's power run scheme. Schmidt has great footwork and extremely long arms to keep pass rushers at bay, while DiLauro has quick footwork and a nasty streak.
In the middle, senior center Joe Spencer is an intelligent leader. He struggles at times in the run game but is a good pass protector.
The big questions of 2016 are at the two open guard spots. After failing to earn the starting spot as a redshirt freshman, Nick Allegretti seems a lot more comfortable as a sophomore. Simply, he's no longer over-thinking and still has the physical tools that made him an Army All-American as a recruit. He locked up a starting guard spot this spring and could make the switch to center next year.
Redshirt freshman Gabe Megginson has even better physical tools than Allegretti. But like Allegretti, Megginson struggled to wrap up the job as a redshirt freshman this spring mostly due to the mental side of the game. Senior Connor Brennan was his main competition this spring, and fellow JUCO alum Zach Heath could make a push this fall if he recovers fully from a knee injury.
That's likely the top seven, with Allegretti able to move to center and Megginson able to move to tackle.
The next in line to get playing time likely is redshirt freshman Adam Solomon. Like Megginson, Solomon is a massive man and looks like he belongs in a Wisconsin uniform. He has roadgrader potential but must continue to work on his technique and footwork. He may project better at guard but Illinois needs tackles in the future.
The Illini welcome four freshmen next month: Darta Lee, Kurt Gavin, Eddy Fish and Jake Cerny. Lee is the most likely to contribute early just due to his size, but all should redshirt this season. Lee and Gavin are interior linemen while Fish and Cerny have the potential to play tackle, though both may project better inside.
What Illini want in 2017
The previous Illini staff found it difficult to recruit offensive linemen against Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern, etc. Most of the state's four-star linemen -- except for Megginson -- left the state, putting the Illini at a huge disadvantage up front. They also didn't inherit a good situation as Ron Zook's last class of five offensive linemen produced just one multi-year starter (Ted Karras).
The previous Illini staff had to roll the dice on two kinds of prospects: junior college prospects and players who had to gain a bunch of weight. The results were mixed. The Illini converted DiLauro, a prep TE, with great results. But none of the JUCO prospects (Dallas Hinkhouse, Brennan, Heath or Fagan) have turned into starters yet -- those were scholarships that could've been spent on prep prospects to develop.
The Illini have had some smart, finesse offensive linemen in recent years but former head coach Bill Cubit put it best when he said that he simply wanted his offensive line to look more like a Big Ten group. The Illini have taken steps in recent year, adding prospects like Megginson, Solomon, Lee and Fish.
Next year could be a big transition year for the Illini offensive line. Schmidt and Spencer will graduate, and it's at least a possibility that DiLauro could forego his final season of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft. Allegretti (who will then be entering fourth year at UI) and Megginson (who will then be entering his third year) will take over as stalwarts with Solomon and either Heath, Martin or one of the current freshmen filling the fifth spot.
The Illini must continue to get bigger, stronger and more physical up front -- especially in McGee's power run scheme. Illinois plans to use four (or possibly five) of their 25 scholarships on offensive linemen.
With the state pretty thin on offensive line talent -- Scout 300 prospect Kevin Jarvis committed to Michigan State -- expect the Illini to look to Florida, Alabama, California, Texas, Indiana, Missouri and elsewhere to boost their blocking.
A longshot for sure. But Hardy Nickerson's relationships in California, especially at Vera-Tucker's high school (Bishop O'Dowd) where Nickerson was head coach for several years, could give the Illini the slightest of chances here.
Indiana OT Bryce Bailey's visit to Champaign this spring seemed to entrench the Illini in this recruitment, though Vanderbilt, Cincinnati and Iowa State seem to be on pretty even footing.
The Illini want to get back into St. Louis, an area Mizzou has owned bragging rights in recent years. Offensive lineman Larry Boyd would be a coup from the area, though he has offers from Mizzou, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Iowa State, Kansas State and Minnesota. The Illini will host a satellite camp at Boyd's high school in early June.
OT Dalton Wagner still needs some technique work, but his massive frame has caught a lot of power-five teams' interest. California, Arkansas, Missouri and Louisville have offered. Illinois is really, really interested but so far seems to have struggled to make a big impression.
One of the possible keys for the Illini to win out-of-state recruitments is to get in early. Earlier this month, the Illini became the first power-five program to offer Alabama offensive lineman Preston Mixon, who certainly looks the part of a Big Ten tackle.
In-state guard Vederian Lowe is the rare offensive line prospect who probably needs to get a little smaller. He's a bit raw but he's powerful. The previous Illini staff was the first (and only) power-five program to offer. The new staff hopes to get a closer look at him during camps next month.
Like Lowe, St. Charles North tackle Isaac Hawn had received an offer from the previous Illini staff, but the new staff wants a closer look in camp this summer. The Illini had the lead before Lovie arrived. If they determine he is worth of an offer, the good news so far is that Hawn hasn't received any other power-five offers.
Peoria center Kendrick Green is a bit undersized at 6-foot-2, 270 pounds. But he was named OL MVP at The Opening Regional in Chicago earlier this month because he is a great technician with superb footwork. Green has no power-five offers but some are ramping up interest. Word is that the Illini want to look at him as a defensive lineman at a camp this summer.