Position Primer: Illini Offensive Line

Illini Inquirer previews the 2016 Illini offensive line and answers burning questions about the position

Illini Inquirer is breaking down one Illini football position group per day, leading up to the start of  Illinois training camp on Thursday, Aug. 4.

July 27 - Illini quarterbacks

July 28 - Illini running backs

July 29 - Illini wide receivers

July 30 - Illini tight ends

Today - Illini offensive line



Year: Redshirt junior

Stats: 19 career starts; started all 12 games in 2015

Analysis: Christian DiLauro has come a long way since arriving at Illinois as a lean, former high school tight end. Entering 2016, he may be the Illini's best offensive line NFL Draft prospect since Hugh Thornton went in the third round of the 2013 NFL Draft. DiLauro bulked up without losing his athleticism and quick feet, making him a plus pass protector. DiLauro still could use more upper-body strength, but he has a nasty streak as a run-blocker. DiLauro did struggle a bit this spring as he adjusted to new foowork at the strongside tackle spot. Garrick McGee's scheme calls for players to switch sides of the center and, thus, switch footwork. Nothing reps can't fix.


Year: Redshirt sophomore

Stats: 16 career starts; started all 12 games in 2015

Analysis: After failing to earn the starting guard 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. Allegretti -- a very intelligent student, who aspires to be a certified public accountant -- is a strong, physical blocker and has the potential to be the bulldozer the Illini need in the run game. He locked up a starting guard spot this spring and could make the switch to center next year.


Year: Redshirt senior

Stats: 26 career starts; started all 12 games last season

Analysis: Of all the Illini currently on the roster, only safety Taylor Barton has more career starts (29) than center Joe Spencer. Named to the Rimington Award (top center) watch list this summer, Spencer is a solid, reliable player and a team leader. Spencer is a very intelligent general at the line of scrimmage and is very fundamentally sound and effective in pass protection. But he lacks brute strength and struggles in the run game to move some of the Big Ten's best interior defensive linemen. Spencer also is a great culture guy. He already earned a bachelor's degree in finance, is pursuing a master's degree in business administration, serves as president of the DIA's student advisory committee and has spearheaded fund-raising efforts for rare-disease research as president of the UI chapter of Uplifting Athletes.


Year: Redshirt freshman

Analysis: Gabe Megginson has even better physical tools than Allegretti. The former four-star recruit is what Big Ten offensive linemen are supposed to look like: country strong, long and mean (at least on the field -- he's a bit goofy off of it). But like Allegretti, Megginson struggled to wrap up a starting guard job as a redshirt freshman during the spring mostly due to the mental side of the game. Megginson must continue to hone his technique and add more functional strength. He's listed as a starting guard on the post-spring depth chart, but two upperclassmen are pushing him for the job. Megginson will be a good player for Illinois. It's just a question of whether he's ready to be that player now.


Year: Senior

Stats: 16 career starts; started all 12 games in 2015

Analysis: Maybe the most unheralded big-impact player on the Illini, Austin Schmidt was by far the best offensive lineman on the Illini during spring ball. The quickside tackle has always been a good pass blocker, but he performed extremely well this spring against future pro Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips, the quickest Illini defensive lineman off the ball. Smoot says Schmidt bothers him the most of the Illini offensive linemen because of his ridiculously long arms. Schmidt also added lower-body strength and looked improved in the run game, a must for McGee's offense.



Year: Senior

Analysis: Former JUCO product Connor Brennan played in just six games last season, but he's pushing Megginson for the starting guard spot. Megginson has better physical tools, but Brennan has been more reliable. He's more of a "serviceable" option, just like former Illini Chris Boles -- who beat out the more talented Allegretti, then a redshirt freshman, for the starting job last season.


Year: Redshirt junior

Analysis: JUCO transfer Zach Heath played just one game last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury. The torn ACL kept  him out most of the spring as well. That missed time has limited Heath's growth. But Heath was the best JUCO offensive lineman the former staff recruited. He has strength and a mean streak and can provide depth at center and guard. If healthy, he can provide even more competition for Megginson.


Year: Redshirt freshman

Analysis: 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. If one of the tackles suffers an injury, he could get some playing time even though he's likely a year away.


Year: Redshirt freshamn

Analysis: Zeke Martin looks noticeably bigger and stronger following a redshirt season. The 290-pounder still must add more strength, but the former three-star recruit is starting to look the part. He's still likely a year away, and if Spencer were to get hurt, Allegretti could be the next best option at center with one of the former JUCO players filling in at guard. But if Martin continues to progress, Allegretti could stay at guard in the future.


Year: Redshirt junior

Analysis: Jordan Fagan played nine games last season on the line and on special teams. He has size but not a lot of strength. He doesn't seem like a real starting or fill-in option at this point, especially with Megginson and Solomon providing higher-ceiling options at tackle.


Year: True freshman

Analysis: Of all the freshmen, Darta Lee looks most likely to play early -- though the Illini will try to avoid that. Lee has Big Ten size already. Unlike most recent Illini OL prospects, he probably needs to lean up a little. He's the type of smash-mouth offensive lineman Illinois needs more of in the future. He's physical and blocks until the whistle. He's pretty unproven as a pass blocker and must improve his quickness though.


Year: True freshman

Analysis: Some see him as a guard, but the previous UI staff saw Jake Cerny as a future left tackle.  Like most incoming linemen, he needs to add weight and strength to get there but he certainly has the technique and fundamentals to develop into a Big Ten tackle. He moves his feet well and has the athleticism to keep defenders in front of him. He's probably two years away from making an impact.


Year: True freshman

Analysis: The potential right tackle to Cerny's potential left tackle, Eddy Fish isn't nearly as fundamentally sound as Cerny but he was a road grader in the run game. Fish is pretty new to football, so he's pretty raw. But the former Boston College commit has great size and plus athleticism, so he has a decent ceiling. He's probably just a few years from realizing it.


Year: True freshman

Analysis: One of the few Illini commits who stuck with Illinois through all its turmoil, Gavin -- one of two in-state signees in 2016 -- Kurt Gavin could play most spots on the offensive line, though he may project best at guard or center. He has good length and solid athleticism. Hate to be repetitive, but he just needs a few years to add strength.

Burning questions

1. Who will win open guard competition?

This battle reminds me so much of last year's guard competition. Most assumed Allegretti would win the open guard battle, but dark-horse candidate Chris Boles -- who had played just three games during his first four years at Illinois -- sneaked up to win the job. Boles was unspectacular but serviceable and more reliable than Allegretti, who seemed overwhelmed at the adjustment to the Big Ten (most first-time players are). Now, Megginson is the favorite to win the job but he hasn't locked it up yet. Brennan stole first-team reps and looked unspectacular but serviceable. Megginson has the talent to play now. He better fits the power-run scheme McGee wants to run. But he must show some growth and readiness during fall camp. If he is healthy, Heath also could be a dark-horse candidate to steal the job.

2. How will line perform in McGee's scheme?

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 Allegretti will always play on the same side as the tight end or the strength of the offense. Schmidt and the other starting guard 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. While the process was frustrating for some on the Illini offensive line, it will make the Illini blockers more versatile -- possibly a boost to the draft stock of NFL hopefuls like Schmidt and DiLauro.

McGee also will use a more power-run based scheme, meaning he will use fullbacks/H-backs and pulling guards to out-number and overpower a side of the defense. This is a more smash-mouth style that relies on more north-south running and pure power than the previous staff's more zone-based scheme that relies more on athleticism and coordination. That's an adjustment for DiLauro, Schmidt and Spencer but could benefit players like Allegretti, Megginson and Solomon.

3. Who of the backups can contribute?

The Illini are locked into four starters: DiLauro, Allegretti, Spencer and Schmidt. Megginson, Brennan and Heath will compete for the guard spot. Whoever doesn't win that battle likely are the next two off the bench. If an injury occurs at tackle, Megginson -- who received reps at tackle during the spring -- could slide over with Brennan or Heath taking the spot on the interior. Solomon likely is the eighth man in the rotation, but there is a big dropoff to the next group of players. The Illini need to improve their depth and are starting to do that with the younger classes, but the group as a whole is really young -- meaning its pretty thin right now.

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