Illini rebuild starts in the trenches with 10 linemen signed in Class of 2017

Illini beef up in the trenches with the addition of four massive offensive linemen and six talented defensive linemen

CHAMPAIGN - Which Illinois assistant coach was smiling wider on Wednesday: Luke Butkus or Mike Phair?

"I was excited," said Butkus, the Illini offensive line coach who added four beefy roadgraders on yesterday's Signing Day. "I was excited to sign everybody in this class."

Said Phair, the Illini defensive line coach who added six defensive linemen in the Class of 2017. ""Did you see Luke over there?! Being able to get these guys was huge."

Illinois coach Lovie Smith called his first signing class at Illinois -- which ranks 34th on the national team rankings and seventh among Big Ten teams -- a "foundation" class. The Illini certainly filled up the trenches -- an area where they have struggled for the last five years.

What separates Illinois from Big Ten West foes like Iowa and Wisconsin? It's certainly not the skill players. In each of the last five seasons, Illinois has finished among the bottom three rushing offense teams in the Big Ten. In each of the last five seasons, Illinois has finished among the bottom five teams in rush defense.

On Wednesday though, the Illini added an Iowa- or Wisconsin-like class of linemen on each side of the ball.

Butkus' four new offensive linemen average 6-foot-5, 297.5 pounds.

All six of Phair's new defensive linemen sported other power-five offers. Kendrick Green turned down Notre Dame, Ole Miss, Iowa, Minnesota and others. Olalere Oladipo turned down Michigan State, Penn State, Indiana and Maryland, among others. Owen Carney turned down several ACC and SEC offers. And Signing Day splash Bobby Roundtree picked Illinois over Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan State, Louisville and NC State, among others.

The Illini rebuild, which certainly will take some time, is starting from the inside out.

"Where do you start building a team? Up front on both sides of the line," Smith said. "We signed 10 linemen today. The foundation starts from there."

Illinois rushing ranks in Big Ten
Year Rush offense Rush defense
2016 13th (of 14) 12th (of 14)
2015 14th 10th
2014 13th 14th
2013 10th (of 12) 12th (of 12)
2012 11th 11th
2011 6th 2nd

Mean and massive

Luke Butkus is not a small man. The former All-Big Ten center is the most massive on the Illini staff. He said he added a little more mass following so many great meals during a January full of in-home visits to recruits' homes.

But in a picture (above) with the three Illini offensive linemen signees announced on Wednesday -- 6-foot-6, 270-poound Mt. Prospect (Ill.) offensive tackle Alex Palczewski; 6-foot-5, 310-pound St. Louis Trinity Catholic guard Larry Boyd; and 6-foot-5, 330-pound offensive lineman Vederian Lowe -- Butkus (who played at 6-foot-4, 290 pounds) looks a bit more average-sized.

"I do like standing next to those guys because they make me feel a little bit small," Butkus said. Add early enrollee Hojo Watkins (6-foot-5, 280 pounds) to the mix and Butkus and offensive coordinator Garrick McGee have the massive, mean offensive linemen they want to re-establish a power run game.

"All three of these guys, they're humble, they're hungry and they're going to do whatever it takes," Butkus said. "To me, there are a couple traits you have to have to play offensive line. Size comes with it, but I'm not a size guy that says you have to fit this exact mold. There's some parameters that we like. But your toughness is number one. Your ability to move, two. And then your brain."

Palczewski, who likely will need a redshirt year to add strength, projects as a strongside tackle. Watkins will begin his career on the interior but possibly projects as a quickside tackle in the Illini scheme. Lowe could play either guard or tackle, while Boyd likely will immediately compete for a starting spot.

Butkus, a Steger, Ill., native who was an Illini team captain on the 2001 Big Ten Championship team, thinks a strong in-state and St. Louis presence in the class only adds more juice to this class.

"Obviously, you know my ties to Illinois," Butkus said. "To sign 10 guys from this state and then get Larry from St. Louis and just guys from the area, I always just say that if you have some stake in this place or you have your friends and family at every game or you have classmates at this game or in the stadium, then you might fight a little bit harder. You might push yourself a little bit more. That's what happened in 2001. We had plenty of guys that fought for each other, that fought for the state of Illinois and fought for the University of Illinois. It worked out pretty good."

Disruptive d-linemen

Phair knows what good defensive linemen look like. He spent six seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, three with the Chicago Bears and now has developed a three NFL defensive linemen at Illinois: 2016 second-round pick Jihad Ward and very likely 2017 draft picks Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips.

But he needed to land a lot of good defensive linemen because he's losing five seniors from his 2016 defensive line rotation, including Smoot, Phillips and four-year contributor Chunky Clements.

"You lose those kind of guys and you know, 'Hey, we got to revamp," Phair said. "But to have Bobby, Jamal Woods, Lere, Owen and the guys, these are key guys that we were able to get. And Kendrick inside. Kendrick's huge. That was a big get to get him. He's going to be a three technique for us. He's a tough kid. He loves ball. They all kind of have that same football character we look for, guys who really like football and tough guys." Phair had a wide smile on Wednesday though with the additions of six talented disruptors, including one 4-star prospect (Green) and three 3-star prospects (Roundtree, Oladipo and Carney). Two-star prospects Deon Pate and Jamal Woods both had other power-five options as well (Rutgers for Pate and Georgia Tech for Woods).

Usually, teams prefer to redshirt linemen. But Phair said the Illini don't have that luxury with all six incoming freshmen in 2017 -- and that these guys are talented enough to make an immediate impact. He said they better be ready.

"Right away. All of them," Phair said. "Really all of these guys, we're expecting them to come in and play for us right away. There's not one guy where I say, 'This guy's two years down the road.' I told them all when I recruited them, 'Listen, we're losing three d-ends, three inside guys, so that's five guys and you have to be ready to come in and play for us right away.' They saw that that was an opportunity for them, and all of them were excited about it."

Pate, Woods and Oladipo will start at left defensive end -- a position that prioritizes a player stronger against the run --  while Carney and Roundtree to right defensive end, where the Illini put their top pass rushers. Pate, Woods and Oladipo all could add versatility in the future by possibly moving inside to defensive tackle.

"I've always been able to do that with those guys, and then on passing downs I'll move those guys inside like I did with Gimel (President) and Jihad last year," Phair said. "You can mix and match those guys a little bit. Every single guy that we signed is athletic enough to do that."

But Phair said he certainly expects the young defensive linemen to take some lumps.

"Any incoming high school kids they're going to come into it and it's going to be a little bit of a shocker at first, but that's why I love to get the in there early and see what they're made of," Phair said. "And they'll develop. I don't have a doubt that any of them will flourish in this defense. I'm excited."

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