Breakout candidate: Illini guard Nick Allegretti

Former high school All-America bowl participant seems to have his his stride in this third training camp at Illinois

Gabe Megginson is much more physically impressive than the other candidate to win the open starting guard job, senior Connor Brennan. But the redshirt freshman, a former four-star recruit, took second-team reps in practice on Monday -- proof that he might not be quite ready to be a Big Ten starter.

It's not that Megginson won't eventually win the job -- he's taken most of the snaps with the first team during fall camp -- or will eventually be a great Big Ten blocker. He has the combination of athleticism and natural strength of a future pro.

But there are reasons freshmen and redshirt freshmen offensive linemen struggle to earn playing time. Or when they do earn playing time, they struggle on the field (like Wisconsin's young offensive line last season, which averaged a Big Ten-worst 3.8 rushing yards per game).

Nick Allegretti knows all about those struggles.

Like Megginson this season, Allegretti last season had the inside track to the one open starting offensive line position, also a guard spot. Like Megginson, Allegretti played in a high school All-America game (Megginson in the Semper Fidelis All-America Game and Allegretti in the U.S. Army All-America Game). Like Megginson, Allegretti had a better overall skill package as a redshirt freshman than his senior competitor for the starting spot.

But when the Illinois offense took the field in Week One last season, fifth-year senior Chris Boles -- who had played just three games during his entire Illini career (and only on special teams) -- earned the start and the other 11 starts. Boles was more serviceable than spectacular, but the Illini wanted reliability, and Allegretti wasn't yet ready to offer that a year into his Illini career.

"It was definitely a very, very challenging (adjustment to the college game)," Allegretti said. "There's the physical aspect of it. You go from your senior of high school, where you're the biggest guy on the field. You're blocking people that are 5-foot-8, 190. It's totally different. Then you come in to college and you have guys like (Illini starting defensive tackle Rob) Bain across from you. It's a lot different."

And even for smart guys like Allegretti -- an Academic All-Big Ten selection and aspiring certified public accountant -- the mental adjustment can be even more challenging.

"The mental aspect is something that I didn't expect," Allegretti said. "It's nothing really comparable to high school. You really have to understand what the entire offensive line is doing. That's something that I struggled with and something that Gabe right now is trying to get over, so he can win that starting position. It's just really something tough all around the board."

But if his Year Two progress mirrors Allegretti's, Megginson will be just fine.

Allegretti -- who played in 11 games last season as a backup guard and center -- proved himself as the no-doubt starter at quickside guard this spring and has taken even more strides early in fall training camp. Last season,the Illinois front five -- which included returning starters Joe Spencer (center), Austin Schmidt (quickside tackle) and Christian DiLauro (strongside guard) -- did a good job of protecting the quarterback (No. 24 the FBS in quarterback sacked percentage). But the Illini finished last in the Big Ten in rushing offense, making Allegretti's emergence as a road-grading run blocker even more necessary to compete in Year One under Lovie Smith.

The Illini also finished 127th among 128 FBS teams in rushing-play percentage last season -- 41.8 percent was ahead of only Washington State (26.5 percent) -- partly due to limited personnel but mostly due to the pass-happy nature of former Illini coach Bill Cubit. Eventually, new offensive coordinator Garrick McGee wants to run a more power-run heavy offense with a dual-threat quarterback.

The scheme fits and needs guys like Allegretti, who has many similarities to his former teammate and the man he's replacing: four-year Illini starter Ted Karras. He is compact and powerful with a nasty streak befitting a Big Ten run blocker. The former Lincoln-Way East standout also has quick feet and moves really well laterally, a trait that will be used more in McGee's new offense which features a lot of pulling guards and rolling pockets. Allegretti could be Joe Spencer's successor at center, unless Illinois feels he's more valuable at guard.

"I think we're just going to go out there and attack a lot more, create the running offense and create a running force so we can go out there and really open the passing offense," Allegretti said. "We focus on the defense but more focused on doing what we want to do and doing it well."

Allegretti admits he feels like a different player than a year ago when he lost a competition for the starting job.

"Yeah, definitely," Allegretti said. "Learning the playbook, obviously that's going to come with time. Probably my biggest adjustment was the coaches basically teaching us how to play football in general. You learn that and then you fit the plays in helps a lot."

Though both are still unproven, Allegretti and Megginson have the potential to give the Illini run game a big boost during the next three seasons together. Based on his performance during the spring and the start of training camp, Allegretti looks primed to take over as the Illini's go-to run blocker.

"Obviously we got the two tackles and Joe, the veterans, so that helps a lot," Allegretti said. "Then the two guard positions, we really got to step up. I definitely think we have the ability to step up in the run game."

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