Offensive Line A Good Mix of Old and New

The Illinois offensive line must improve if the Illini are going to improve as a team. This mix of seniors who have played a great deal of football and young players who will in time be great players is most intriguing. The o-line preview is our fourth of the pre-season.

It is the most difficult position to build. Years of recruiting, weight-training, developing, and waiting. And then, only then, have you built a successful offensive line. It is a position most easily played by older players, juniors and seniors whose bodies and minds have developed.

That is the primary reason why new college coaches, while starting to play their own recruits much sooner at some positions, usually play the inherited players the first three years or so at a new program.

Ron Zook inherited a bad line at Florida, but still had to play them until he could recruit better ones. Of those he inherited, only one – tackle Max Starks of the Pittsburgh Steelers – made it to the NFL. The ones Zook recruited, however, led Florida to the national title as juniors. Four of the starters are back, meaning the Gators again have one of the best lines in the country.

Fast forward to Illinois, where Zook inherited good, tough-nosed offensive linemen, but not a lot of NFL prospects. He has begun to build this line like the one at Florida, but how far along has yet to be seen.

OFFENSIVE TACKLE: Last year, the Illini paired Oklahoma transfer Akim Millington (6-6, 313), now a senior, and converted defensive lineman Charles Myles (6-6, 335), who would have been a senior this year. But Millington has been hobbled here and there and Myles has been lost for the year.

Hopefully, Millington finally can play at full strength. If so, coaches believe he can have a big year at left tackle, despite struggling against the pass last year. Coaches are quick to remind that he was hurt, although on the field last year. The other tackle could be redshirt freshman Ryan Palmer (6-7, 308), who will be a great one in time. But is he ready?

Competition will come from fellow redshirt freshman Randall Hunt (6-6, 308) and the guy who could be the X-factor (I admit it, pun intended), Xavier Fulton (6-5, 279), the oft-injured former defensive end who is now a junior. New line coach Eric Wolford and Zook loved adding Fulton's athleticism to a line that lacks it, but the question remains is he big and strong enough to compete and the always physical Big Ten.

OFFENSIVE GUARD: Maybe the surprise of the spring was the emergence of senior left guard Martin O'Donnell (6-5, 322), one of former coach Ron Turner's most heavily recruited players, but a guy who never played up to expectations. But when spring came around, Zook told me he was more vocal than ever, a better leader than ever and seemed as committed and tough and ready as any could have imagined.

The right guard will be true sophomore Jon Asamoah (6-5, 300), probably Illinois' center of the future. A bit undersized, Asamoah is athletic and one of the most intelligent players on the Illini team. And the most intelligent player on the team, senior center Ryan McDonald (6-5, 293), is the most solid, play in and play out, performer the team has.

One of the top backups, if he stays away from off field problems, is 6-5, 295-pound redshirt freshman Brandon Jordan. He may be the best athlete of the entire group, but has to learn to focus on football. If he does, watch out. Twice he has been on the verge – once even beyond – of losing his scholarship, but he continues to fight back.

And finally, although there are a number of backups on campus from other recruiting seasons, coaches can't wait to see if their freshman haul get in the mix here – particularly Mark Jackson, Craig Wilson and Jack Cornell.

Overall, this is a group that is getting better, a good mix of senior leadership and young players with terrific promise.

ZOOK QUOTE: "Martin O'Donnell really showed us something in the spring. He became a leader. That was nice to see. I liked what I saw from Xavier, he will get bigger. Let's see how big he can get. And Akim, we've still never seen him play healthy. I'm anxious to see that."

FRANGIE TAKE: I'm a little concerned about this group, frankly. Woolford told me not to be, but it just takes so long to build the line. I think the young guys – Palmer, Asamoah, others, will be very good in time. But it's tough to play young guys up front. Among the veterans, McDonald is solid, not great, but reliable. They are hoping O'Donnell is that as well. And I just don't know what to make of Millington because he is always limping around. This group will take some mixing and matching from Woolford, who is a very good coach, to be all they can be. It will be interesting. Next position: Wide receiver and tight end.

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