Position Review: The Offensive Line

Leading up to the 2005 Illini football season, IlliniBoard.com's Jeff Murdock decided it would be a good idea to breakdown the Fighting Illini football team position by position. In today's installment, Jeff looks at the offensive line and what to expect from them as they attempt to create holes for the Illini running backs and protect the backside of the Illinois quarterback.

Heading into this season, Ron Zook will be looking to fill two large holes left in the Illinois offensive line thanks to the graduation of Duke Preston, a fourth-round draft pick by the Buffalo Bills, and Bucky Babcock, a four-year starter at Illinois, most recently at right tackle. To fill in the void left by the departed Babcock and Preston, Zook will look to Ron Turner's heralded offensive line Class of 2003, and juniors Matt Maddox & JJ Simmons.

In the Class of 2003, while the Illini's appearance in the Sugar Bowl was still fresh in high schoolers' minds, Ron Turner landed a recruiting class that was considered one of the Top 20 in the nation by many recruiting publications. The class included Kelvin Hayden and Pierre Thomas, and five offensive lineman that Ron Turner dubbed "five of the best offensive linemen in the Midwest." Those five offensive linemen were: Martin O'Donnell, Kevin Gage, Jim LaBonte, James Ryan, and Ben Amundsen. Kevin Gage is no longer with the Illini, but the other four offensive linemen in the Class of 2003 will all be fighting for playing time this season, and all will probably see action on the field at one position or another.

After Spring Drills, Illinois Head Coach Ron Zook released a depth chart that looked like:

LT: JJ Simmons
LG: Ben Amundsen
C: Matt Maddox
RG: James Ryan
RT: Jim LaBonte

The most shocking element on this depth chart was that Martin O'Donnell who played in all but five plays for the Illini last season. It was up to O'Donnell this summer and fall to win back his left guard spot from fellow redshirt sophomore Ben Amundsen. According to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, it appears Martin O'Donnell has won back the starting job, and Amundsen will become the Illini's utility man on the offensive line.

While Ron Zook's official depth chart has yet to be released (and it probably will not until the week before the Rutgers game), it appears the left side of the offensive line will remain in tact from last season heading into the 2005 campaign.

Ron Zook will be looking at his offensive line to improve upon last year's performance when the Illini offensive line allowed 24 sacks in just 11 games, more than 2 sacks per contest, but it will be a tall task to ask the young players to accomplish. Not only will the entire right side of the offensive line never have started in a college game, but they are also learning a new offensive system, complete with new blocking packages and schemes.

If you remove the non-conference games from the Illini schedule, the Fighting Illini offensive line allowed 22 sacks (1 sack was allowed in each the UCLA and Western Michigan game, while none were allowed against Florida A & M) in just 8 games in conference play, or 2.75 sacks per game against Big Ten competition. To put that number into perspective, last season Illinois dropped back for 378 pass attempts (forced scrambles for positive yardage are not counted in this number because the play by play data does not delineate between scrambles and straight quarterback runs). The opposing defense was able to get to the Illinois quarterback and sack him on 6% of all pass plays, not counting QB hurries as those numbers were not readily available either.

Last season, the Illini were much better blocking for the running game than they were for the passing attack. Thanks to the blocking of the offensive line, and the running of Pierre Thomas, EB Halsey, and Jason Davis, the Illini were able to amass 153.3. yards per game on the ground on 4.2 yards per carry.

Replacing the departing seniors will be a tall task for the young offensive line, and as the Rantoul Scrimmage last Saturday showed, they still have a long way to go. In total, the Illini quarterbacks were sacked four times on the five standard drives, three times on the red zone drives, and once in the two-minute offense. Not all of these sacks were against the first team offensive line, but it is still a sign that there is a lot of improvement to be had, especially in pass protection. According to Luke Newman in his recap of the scrimmage for IlliniBoard.com, the Illini offensive line had "many, many false starts", but it is something that he expects to be resolved when the season begins. As the offensive linemen get more comfortable with the cadence from the Illini quarterbacks and the overall offense, the number of false starts should be reduced dramatically, but it is something to watch out for in the pre-conference games this season.

It is time for the Class of 2003 to live up to their billing. It looks like they are ready to do so based on their comments to the St. Louis Post Dispatch. As Martin O'Donnell put it, "With us guys that came in together, there's definitely a pride factor. We recognize that we have the potential to be special, be solid contributors ... but now, we want to help the team be successful." It will be a difficult adjustment for them as they are learning a new offensive system under Ron Zook, but new Illini offensive line coach Ed Warinner believes that they have "the ability" and are "Big Ten material." He just does not know what they can do on the field until they actually get their chance on the field, and that chance will be September 3 against Rutgers. This season is the start of their chance to prove Ron Turner was right when he called this group of offensive lineman "five of the best offensive linemen in the Midwest" in the High School Class of 2003.

While the majority of this preview focused on the new members of the Illini offensive line, I would be remiss if I did not take at least a little time to talk about Junior C Matt Maddox. Maddox was named by Street and Smith as a Pre-Season Honorable Mention All American, and will be looked to by Ron Zook to anchor Illinois' passing and rushing attack. He will be playing center for the first time in his college career, as that spot was manned by Duke Preston during Maddox's previous three seasons at Illinois. Maddox is probably the Illini's best run blocker, and he is coming off a season last year where he was second on the team in knockdown blocks.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories