Wolford Turns O-Line Into Productive Unit

One of the biggest concerns for the Illini football team going into spring drills was offensive line. It was inconsistent a year ago, and its coach departed for another school. But new line coach Eric Wolford molded his unit into one of the best groups in the country, allowing the Illini offense to gain over 5000 yards for the season.

The first thing Coach Wolford did was to instill togetherness among his charges.

"That's the way it has to be. I felt like when I came here, we really weren't together. My first job was to get these guys to understand we have to be a unit. We have to work together, live together, eat together, go out together. Whatever we do, we need to do it together.

"I felt like the group I inherited, if we could play well upfront, we're going to have the people around us to be a great football team. Our philosophy has been it always starts upfront. Playing together as a group, that meant doing extra things after practice. Doing extra things in the summer. Extra lifting, extra running, extra drills. And those are all voluntary. But we had to do those things to elevate our play."

Then, Wolford needed to instill toughness. Some people assume the only way to develop toughness is a hard love approach with much screaming and intimidation of players. That may be necessary at times, but Wolford's philosophy on toughness resonates better and obviously produces results.

"I think it's understanding you don't have touchdowns, you don't have carries, you don't have catches, you don't have sacks, you don't have tackles, you don't have assists. What do you really have? All you really have is the respect and pride from your teammates.

"If you're soft and passive, and you're getting pushed around all the time, or losing football games because you're not playing well, then you have nothing. All we care about is the respect from our teammates. We don't care about awards and those things. They're all fine, but it's the respect from our teammates.

"I want us to be tough. We've got a lot of room for improvement. And I expect these guys to step up to the plate and continue to improve, to be the type of big, nasty group upfront that you really don't want to play (against). You know, by the third quarter, 'I don't know if I really want to keep doing this.' That's what we have to do. We have to intimidate."

Senior captain and left guard Martin O'Donnell made three All-America teams and deserved those awards. However, Wolford calls him a "Limited Edition" athlete rather than a "Sport Edition" because he doesn't have the ideal athleticism and quickness for the position. This is no criticism, especially since Martin made up for any lack of quickness with moxy.

"He's played in so many games, he probably knows what the defender is going to do before he does it. And he understands the whole scheme, he understands how the defender is trying to defend. He's very crafty, and he just finds a way to get it done. If we can get these Sport Editions to play with his knowledge and football savvy, we're going to have a pretty good group."

Wolford and his fellow coaches voted junior left tackle Xavier Fulton as Outstanding Offensive Lineman at their postseason banquet. Fulton brought speed, quickness and aggressiveness over from defensive end and is evolving into the quintessential left tackle. But who would have played that important spot if Xavier had not made the transition?

"Possibly we would have had Ryan Palmer in there, or right now redshirted a guy like Mark Jackson. We're going to find a way. We always play the five best guys, so we're going to find a way to make it work. Jon Asamoah can play right tackle. Jon can play any position on the field. So Jon could have played right tackle, Akim (Millington) could have gone to the left. Jon could have played left tackle possibly."

There are few quality left tackles available to recruit each year, so Illini coaches are constantly on the prowl for the next Fulton.

"It is one of the most difficult positions to recruit. You're looking for a special athlete. We're actively recruiting them now. Right now, our focus is on getting our younger players developed during this time so we have an idea what we have. But in the spring, all those jobs will be wide open."

One of those youngsters is freshman redshirt Craig Wilson. Strength and Conditioning Coach Lou Hernandez has bragged how well Wilson is doing in the weight room. Is the young giant a left tackle candidate?

"He's putting himself in a position to compete. The things you do in the weight room have a lot of carryover on the football field. Now it's just a matter of getting out here and doing what you're asked to do. Playing with some fundamentals and playing with some fight to you. If you do that, you're going to have a chance to be successful. He's a left tackle and is second string for us. For a big man, he can move. He's well over 300 pounds."

The Illini have several good-looking prospects already on campus to keep the offensive line chugging along at a high pace for a long time to come. But you can never have enough linemen according to Wolford. Several more are on the way and will be given a chance to play early.

"We need a big list. You can never have too many. You can losee one guy one play. We want to get stocked up. I think every kid we're bringing in here will have a chance. It's just how fast he can adapt, how fast he can compete at this level. When you come to this level from high school, it is much faster. And when you go to the NFL, it's even faster yet. So it's how fast you can adapt to the speed of the game."

This year's offensive line is one of the best in Illini fans' memories, and three starters return next year. But Eric Wolford is driven to made his lines dominant for many years to come.

"When we come out in the spring, it's going to be wide open. No one has a job. Every year is a new year. You've got to keep it competitive, you can't let anyone become complacent.

"We're going to continue to elevate our goals. This year, we've taken some steps in the right direction. I still feel we have a lot of room for improvement. If we can continue to improve like we have this year, we have a chance to have a pretty good group for a long time."

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