Position Preview: O-Line Has Savvy Veterans

No sport has the concept of grown men playing against growing boys the way college football does. And nowhere does having experienced, fully grown older players matter more than the line of scimmage -- particularly the offensive front. Which is why Illini coaches feel good about their group.

This year, Illinois will start two fifth-year seniors on the offensive front. Both of those players -- left tackle Xavier Fulton and center Ryan McDonald -- are tough, extremely intelligent players who have seen there share of Big Ten battles.

"Those guys have been through it," coach Ron Zook said. "That is why they can be so valuable and helpful to our younger guys."

They also know what offensive coordinator Mike Locksley expects. They know what offensive line coach Eric Woolford demands. They know what opposing linemen are going to do. And they know what younger linemen are going through.

What also helps is that they are joined by at least one more relatively experienced player -- right guard Jon Asamoah, a true junior who has been in the mix since he got on campus. Asamoah, like McDonald and Fulton, is extremely intelligent and has a genuine sense for the game.

Those two are joined by right tackle Ryan Palmer for sure and either Randall Hunt or Eric Block at left guard. Hunt is bigger (6-6, 305) than Block (6-2, 290), but Block is a tough guy with a little more experience. It was Block who came in against Ohio State last year when Martin O'Donnell was done for awhile and did a serviceable job.

This group, together, could be the best one Illinois has had since Zook has been there. Although O'Donnell and right tackle Akim Millington are gone from last year, their replacements are very good -- I think Palmer will be better than Millington in time -- and the three returning starters will be better than ever.

Still, the best Illinois offensive line may be the one waiting its turn. Coaches are so impressed with true freshman tackles Corey Lewis and Graham Pocic that they have run with the second team much of camp, ahead of more experienced backups Craig Wilson and Mark Jackson.

Wilson, because of that, has gotten some work as a backup guard. And last year's haul of Jack Cornell, Mike Garrity, others, still are in the fold as well. As are this year's interior guys --Jeff Allen, Ryan Sedlacek and Tyler Sands.

Privately, Zook is absolutely giddy about the depth Illinois has built at this spot. For now, he is pretty please with the five that will star the Missouri game, too. A group that will be his best yet.

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