You could hear the groans all over Champaign the day of the spring game. Not just from Corey Lewis, the starting tackle who lay in pain after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. But also from teammates, coaches and fans who knew they just lost a critical starter.
"Mostly, I hate it for Corey," coach Ron Zook said. "He had a really good spring and was playing very well."
The good news is that Illinois is in good shape behind him with 6-7, 300-pound junior Ryan Palmer, who has had plenty of playing time and was starting to emerge as well. The bad news is that the health of Palmer and Jeff Allen, the other starting tackle and a legitimate all-star candidate, is more critical than ever.
If one goes down, the call could go to veteran reserve Craig Wilson or the Illini could move guard Hugh Thornton, who is competing with Randall Hunt and Jack Cornell, back outside. But they believe Thornton is a guard and would rather leave him there. If they do, that battle will be one of the best of the fall.
So with Allen and Palmer set at tackle, as Lewis sits out and readies for next season, and as Hunt, Cornell and Thornton battle for two guard spots, the focus became center. Tyler Sands started the spring at the position, but coaches weren't sure he was the guy. Enter 6-foot-6, 320-pound Graham Pocic, converted from guard, who moved one day, won the job immediately and was one of the true surprises of the spring.
"You knew the minute you saw him there," Offensive line coach Joe Gilbert said. "And he got better every practice, every drill."
But can he play low enough?
"Fair question, that was our question, too," Gilbert said. "But he can. I really believe that. Trust me, you're going to like what you see from Graham. He sort of completed the group for us."