Spring ball answered some but not all the questions that surround the offensive line. New Illinois offensive line coach Joe Gilbert made a positive impression on his players, and they responded by making definite improvement throughout the spring.
However, they lost two important starters to graduation in NFL draftee Xavier Fulton and four year starter Ryan McDonald, who signed a free agent NFL contract. And they must rely upon youngsters who have not yet reached their peak level of strength and maturity. How quickly they respond to the challenges ahead will go a long way toward deciding the Illini's fate on the football field.
Right guard Jon Asamoah is the anchor of the line. A three year letterwinner, Asamoah combines strength, quickness and intelligence into a formidable package. He could be used on any of the five spots on the line and be effective, and he is a potential All-Big 10 and All-American performer.
Eric Block is making the most of his extra year of eligibility. Given a reprieve by the NCAA, Block is replacing McDonald at center after starting at left guard last fall. Block is heady and experienced, so he should be more than adequate there.
Head coach Ron Zook is pleased to have Asamoah and Block leading his line.
"Both of them have been around here and played a lot of football. It's great to have Eric back. We haven't had many 5th year guys around here lately. Jon, he knows what to do and works extremely hard. It's always good to have guys when they're doing that. The young guys look at that and its good for them."
Jeff Allen continues to improve by leaps and bounds. The upcoming sophomore started more than half the season at right tackle as a raw freshman, and that experience has given him the confidence to be an effective starter in his second year. In fact, his improved conditioning and added quickness allowed Gilbert to move him to the important left tackle spot. Allen is a future star, but when he blossoms remains to be seen.
Ryan Palmer's improvement at right tackle made it easier to move Allen to the left side. Palmer has always had good foot quickness, but it has taken awhile for his long, lanky frame to add needed strength. He broke a foot and sat out half the season in 2008, but he is healthy now.
Moving up at left guard is fourth year junior Randall Hunt. Hunt held a starting berth last spring also, but this year he might just keep it. He held off a challenge from freshman Graham Pocic, although that battle will continue in Camp Rantoul.
Corey Lewis was also forced into action last fall as a rookie due to injuries on the line. He has the size and quickness to help out, but he lacks experience and maturity. He was given a couple weeks at right tackle after beginning the spring as the starting left tackle. He now is considered the third tackle, capable of playing either side in an emergency.
Lewis and Pocic are probably the first two replacements off the bench, but the other spots are less certain. Craig Wilson is improving as a left tackle. He has the size and athleticism to play there, but he is still working on consistency. Hopefully, some simplification of assignments will help him along those lines. But he is not yet ready to play significant minutes.
The same is true of right guard Jack Cornell. It appeared Cornell lost some weight during the winter. If so, this will help him considerably. He must continue to work on his flexibility and foot quickness to play.
Three players worked out at center behind Block. Unfortunately, all three had problems snapping the ball. The center must be perfect getting the ball back to a quarterback in a spread offense. Block's ability to do this became extremely obvious while watching the other three struggle repeatedly on their snaps.
Freshman Tyler Sands was running second string the first two weeks of spring before suffering a leg injury that forced him to sit the rest of the way. Freshman Ryan Sedlacek held third team for awhile, but redshirt sophomore Mike Garrity was moved there when Sands went down. A recent off-the-field incident may eliminate Garrity from contention.
Four incoming freshmen have promise, but it is hoped none will be needed right away. If they are, Andrew Carter and Hugh Thornton both have the ability to play early. Carter has excellent speed for a lineman and may be groomed as a center.
Thornton is a heavyweight wrestling champion who could play anywhere needed. The offensive coaches may have to fight the defensive coaches for his services. Leon Hill might also contend if he reports in top shape. Jake Feldmeyer will add depth.
Zook was obviously concerned about the snapping problem with the second unit, but he feels the starters can do a good job.
"It's early. I think the first group I feel pretty good about. As long as we continue to improve there, I think we'll be all right."
Zook knew Coach Gilbert would well with the offensive line, and he appreciated the new energy Gilbert and fellow newcomers Mike Schultz and Keith Gilmore brought to the staff.
"We knew Coach Gilbert would be fine. The guys have kind of taken to him. We have three new coaches who are excited to be here, and they're good guys. We lost good coaches, but we're bringing in good coaches. I think the energy of taking a new job and being in a new situation has rubbed off on everybody. It's been fun."