Wolford Getting the Most Out of O-Line

The Fighting Illini offensive line has improved markedly in Coach Ron Zook's four years. Better recruiting is part of the reason, but so is solid coaching. Coach Eric Wolford produced a group last year that manhandled most of its opponents, and he believes this year's group can be as good or better.

"You know what, these guys have responded well," volunteered Wolford. "We get a chance to work against good players every day, and that's a great thing.

"For some of the young guys, the biggest adjustment is the speed of the game and how athletic some of these guys are. It's a learning experience for them, but I'm starting to see the last couple of days some progress with their development. I'm encouraged by that."

Center Ryan McDonald and left tackle Xavier Fulton are candidates for post season honors, and Jon Asamaoh is equally talented and experienced. Coach Wolford hasn't listed his starting lineup yet, but the remaining two positions will likely be filled by Ryan Palmer, Eric Block and/or Randall Hunt.

"Yeah, I feel pretty good about our group right now. I'm not ready to name guys yet, but I feel good about what we have, and I'm feeling pretty good about where 6, 7, and 8 are off the bench. We could potentially get 9 guys and possibly 10 ready down the road here in the next couple weeks."

To play that many players, some raw freshman may have to play. Wolford is surprisingly upbeat about that prospect.

"Any time you come in and take over a program, young kids have a chance to play earlier than expected. That's not common, that's not normal, but as long as we continue to drive them like they're upperclassmen and don't just accept the fact that they're freshmen and keep pushing them, trying to get them to become overachievers, then we have a chance to develop them into good players and solid guys for that second group."

With four linemen graduating after this year, Wolford has a need to develop young players to replace the seniors next year. Getting some playing time this year may help some of the youngsters prepare for the future.

"No question. There might be a guy in there at second that might not play this year, but we're trying to groom him as heir apparent at that position. Right now, I like the way things are coming together."

Freshmen Jeff Allen and Graham Pocic were early enrollees and had a chance to develop during spring practice. They may see the field this fall.

"We made the move of Jeff Allen to right tackle and Graham Pocic to right guard. We're trying to put guys in the best position to compete, and I think Graham feels more comfortable at guard right now.

"Jeff can play anywhere across the board. He's a very athletic guy. He's gotta continue to focus on every play. Those guys are gonna have a chance to have a bright future."

Another outstanding freshman prospect is left tackle Corey Lewis, who's backing up Xavier Fulton right now.

"I hope he won't have to play because that means X (Fulton) doesn't get hurt. But Corey Lewis has adapted very well. He's a very talented kid. You have to just continue to drive him and make him realize that being a freshman is not acceptable. I want him to play like he's a junior. He's one play away."

Redshirt freshman Craig Wilson backs up Lewis and also plays guard, but he's presently on the third team despite good potential.

"Craig Wilson is just inconsistent right now. He's a great kid, he comes to work every day, he's just got to develop confidence. Sometimes when you're confused, you don't play as fast as you need to. He's confused at times. He does have talent. Sometimes, it just takes some guys more reps. Craig's got a chance to help us out."

With McDonald backed by fellow seniors Block and Mike Nabolotny at center, Wolford must develop someone to take over next year. He has some options.

"Sedlacek is our freshman center. Jon Asamoah can play center, and Jeff Allen can play center. We'll have a guy that'll get developed to play that position. We're working to get the freshman as much reps as we can, and he'll have a good experience this fall working against the number one defense. And then develop Jon and Jeff."

Last year's group was known for its aggressiveness and ability to play as a unit. If the linemen this year are as determined as their coach, they will be known for the same traits.

"We're gonna be agressive. That's one of our trademarks. We're gonna be agressive, and we're gonna play as a unit. They do things together. They cookout and barbeque together. That's what it takes to be a good group up front.

"They've done the extra things, whether it's staying after practice or doing extra meeting time. Whatever it takes, we're gonna find a way to get the job done."

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