USA Today // Noah K. Watson

Young: Illini OL improving; Nelson shines

Positive developments for the Illini in recent weeks include improvement of the offensive line and the emergence of safety Patrick Nelson

While the Illinois running backs are receiving a lot of deserved praise for their play in recent weeks, the gradual improvement of the Illini offensive line should be recognized as well.

Shortly after joining the Illinois coaching staff, offensive coordinator Garrick McGee emphasized that a physical run game would be first objective for the OL. McGee employs a combination of power- and zone-blocking schemes. The execution of the Illinois offensive line has surprised most opponents because of their ability to use both guards and tackles to break up the line on gap blocks and because of how well they step in concert on zone runs. During last Saturday's win at Rutgers, the offensive line created some explosive runs for running backs Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin and quarterback Chayce Crouch 

The first explosion run (run of 10 yards or more) came on Foster's 26-yard gain. The Illini aligned in 11/Diamond Personnel (1 RB - 1 TE- 3 WR) with an angle-blocking concept to the weak side of the offensive formation and away from Rutgers strength on defense. Left guard Nick Allegretti executed the power block by pulling from his left, locating the weakside linebacker Trevor Morris.

Tight end Tyler White's seal block on defensive end Darnell Davis Jr. set up a clear path for Allegretti to the perimeter to block Morris which allowed Foster a one-on-one match up vs strong safety Anthony Cioffi.

The next big run came in the form of zone blocking out of 10/Spread formation.(1 RB - 0 TE - 4 WR). The offensive line steps in concert to their right and center Joe Spencer produced a key block on nose tackle Sebastian Joseph.

That was enough of a running crease for Corbin to run for a 53-yard gain, converting a critical third-down conversion.

The Fighting Illini OL capitalized on another critical moment in the red zone that led to a touchdown by Foster.  

McGee created deception, making 11 personnel look like 10. He displaced White outside the numbers like a wide receiver before motioning him back into the tackle box, reading what defense the Scarlet Knights would execute. Rutgers countered with man Coverage, WR Malik Turner down-blocked Cioffi. Then cornerback Blessaun Austin followed Turner because of his man coverage responsibilities, which created a pile on the edge. 

Left tackle Christian DiLauro was able to pull around the congestion and cut block Morris, allowing Foster to run into the end zone untouched.

Crouch also recorded a sizable gain of 28 yards on the zone read. Crouch showed good recognition at the line of scrimmage by locating the Cioffi to the field aligned at the first level outside both TEs. The Illini aligned in 12 personnel (1 RB - 2TEs - 2WRs) and attacked the weak side of Rutgers defense into the boundary. 

The OL stepped in unison to their left, RG Gabe Megginson eliminated the defensive tackle, RT Austin Schmidt paved the way with a down block on DE Myles Nash, and TE Ainslie Johnson executed a wham block on Morris, creating an extra gap. That gave Crouch the crease to break away into the third level.

Nelson emerges

Illini redshirt freshman Patrick Nelson received B1G Freshman of the week for his effort last Saturday afternoon vs Rutgers (4 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks).  

The strong safety, who has 32 tackles over his three straight starts, showed the ability to quickly diagnose both run and pass plays, constrict running lanes on run support and make openfield tackles. Here are a few of examples of Nelson's skill-set and why he's been able to contribute so well to the defense.

Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson called man coverage against Rutgers' 11/Diamond personnel formation.(1 RB - 1 TE - 3 WR). Nelson aligned close to the second level behind linebacker Tre Watson in order to cover the detached tight end Nick Arcidiacono 

Fearful of the Illini pass rush, Rutgers had seven blockers (5 OL - 1RB - 1 TE) to block the front four. LB Hardy Nickerson became the fifth rusher when running back Justin Goodwin stayed behind the line of scrimmage to block, as well as Arcidiacono. Once Nelson recognized his coverage responsibility stayed at the line of scrimmage to block, Nelson (like Nickerson) showed the football intelligence to add himself to the rush. It paid off as he get credit for a half sack from the edge pressure of DE Gimel President.

Second, Nelson displayed his ability to attack downhill toward the line of scrimmage from LB depth. His play strength allows him to take on RB blocks and make tackles within three yards of the line of scrimmage. 

The Scarlet Knights attempted a quarterback sweep with Giovanni Rescingo by using Goodwin as the seventh blocker to block Nelson, the Illini's seventh defender in the box. Without hesitation, Nelson quickly processed the run action toward him. He showed the play speed to attack Goodwin behind the line of scrimmage with low leverage, disengage from the block, record a TFL and not allow Rescingo to escape the perimeter.

Lastly, Nelson displays the ability to react quickly in zone coverage at SS depth. He was able to process the speed out by Arcidiacono in detached alignment. Nelson's coverage responsibility her is the flat in cover-3, and he uses a combination of closing speed and inside out leverage to make a sure tackle in the open field for no gain.

Certainly there is still a lot Nelson can improve upon learning the nuances of the safety position, especially in coverage. However, 14 tackles stands out on any stat sheet. But in Nelson's case, his ability to make tackles within three yards of the line of scrimmage stood out most on film. That ability was why he earned B1G Freshman of the Week.

Micheal Young is the football analyst for Young was a four-year starter for Illinois football and a team captain. The St. Louis native also played for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals from 2001-04. He serves as a color analyst for several broadcast outlets and co-hosts an Illini podcast with former UI teammate Carey Davis on

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