Jon Asamoah is in his third year as a starter at Illinois. The right guard is smart, quick and athletic and anchors the offensive line. When he sat out a week of Camp Rantoul nursing a viral infection, the offensive line struggled. He is now back to full health and eager for his final season.
Asamoah doesn't want to see a repeat of last year, when injuries depleted the unit. It was a year lacking in consistency and leadership.
"All the older guys, we don't want to do like last year," Asamoah exclaims. "We're motivated, we push now. The good things will hopefully come later."
With all the changeover last year, it was impossible to get the whole line functioning as one unit. An offensive line depends on good communication. That was lacking last year but not this.
"It's a lot better. Sometimes last year we had rookies looking back for the count. We weren't all on the same page. But it's better now than we've ever had. It's another year of experience and just more confidence."
The entire first unit has been together throughout spring ball and this fall. The more they do together, the better they can be as a unit.
"Yeah, that cohesiveness in the offensive line is important. When we had the split practices, the communications were not quite right. I can even feel the guys on the left side. Everything is smooth, we hear the calls back and forth We're so used to being around each other."
The offensive line has had to adjust to new coach Joe Gilbert, but Asamoah believes the change has been a blessing.
"Coach Joe coaches us a little differently, and we see more things than we used to. He's real big on technique and focus, focus, focus on these little keys. Now, we're finally seeing these little keys, so we're getting the blocking."
Offensive linemen don't know for sure what happened on any play until they watch it on film after the game. Their job is to carry out their assignments and trust the ball carrier or passer is benefitting from their efforts. Illinois will be using several running backs this year, but Asamoah had no answer when asked if he must block differently for different backs.
"I have no idea. We're just back there trying to do our job. If we do our job, we know we're gonna see somebody running up and down."
The right guard works especially close to the players adjacent to him. Asamoah played three years next to graduated center Ryan McDonald, but he feels no dropoff now that Eric Block has moved to center from left guard.
"Eric is a lot more natural at center than guard. He looks better too. He really looked small at guard. He likes to be really up close in space. I feel just as comfortable with him as I did (Ryan) McDonald or anybody else there."
The 6'-5", 315 pounder gets excited when asked about depth on the line.
"Yeah, a lot of guys are getting a lot better. It's crazy. Graham Pocic is finally looking like a player. Craig Wilson shocked me big-time. This might be his breakthrough. There are guys making plays with the 2's and 3's. And the young guys are a lot better."
"Carter is doing all right. Hugh Thornton's got potential. Leon's coming along a little slower, but you see those flashes. Jake Feldmeyer is not quite big yet, but he's understanding the center position a lot faster than we've seen. And Nate's catching on too. The first couple days were rough for Nate, but once he figures out what he's doing and gets his big butt moving off the line, he'll be good."
The Rich East grad and his line mates are highly motivated to block this year since the Illini have talented skill players who can make plays with blocking help.
"We have so many people, we just say as long as we do our job, there's so many talented guys back there, no matter who's back there we're gonna make big plays. Good things will come."
Asamoah is the quiet sort, but he is serving an important leadership role on the 2009 team. He and a number of other upperclassmen are stepping up this year, which makes success more likely.
"Yeah, you respect them on the field, that's important right there. You see them off the field, and you have the other respect. It's important. There's a lot of guys the younger guys are gonna follow."
When Asamoah allows himself to reflect on his career, he empathizes with the freshmen. He remembers his first Camp Rantoul and how tough it was to face the realities of major college football. But then, he also remembers why they must endure all that hard work.
"I was like man, this ain't worth it. But then when I ran out for that first game against Eastern Illinois, I was like wow, it was worth it."