Fighting Illini Offensive Line Taking Shape

The Fighting Illini offense is excited about having a new offensive coordinator and quality talent at running back and receiver. Even the inexperienced quarterback group has excellent potential. However, much of their success depends on having an offensive line that can do its job. Line coach Joe Gilbert talks about the progress of his linemen to this point.

Illinois offensive line coach Joe Gilbert has been working hard to mold a functioning unit that can open holes for the runners and protect the quarterbacks from onrushing defenders. He is beginning to envision how that will shake out.

"I think we're getting to the point where we know the guys that are gonna play for us. There's still some competition at one of the guard spots. And then obviously I think the other guys are fitting into their roles as far as whether they're gonna be spot players or play a little more in the rotation. So we're getting there. We're getting close."

Jeff Allen is a fixture at weakside tackle, with Ryan Palmer making vast improvement on the stronside. Graham Pocic is the starting center, while Randall Hunt is set at one guard spot. The other guard is a tossup between Hugh Thornton and Jack Cornell. Other backups thought to get minutes include tackle Craig Wilson and guard/center Tyler Sands.

There was major concern this spring when starting right tackle Corey Lewis suffered an ACL tear in his knee that required surgery and eliminated him from play in 2010. Redshirt senior Ryan Palmer has worked hard to fill that spot.

"Ryan Palmer is having the best camp," Gilbert asserts. "He's so much better than last year. He's physical, he's playing a lot tougher, he's stronger. He's had the best off-season he's ever had.

"So I think Ryan is one of those guys who as a fifth year senior is finally figuring out that this is his last deal. He's been playing like that. He's been doing a really good job. The way he's practiced, he has definitely made it his."

The other starting tackle is two year letterman Jeff Allen. He is the anchor of the line, but he needs to keep improving according to Gilbert.

"Jeff has got a lot of ablility. The problem with Jeff is he's got to focus every single time. Every rep has got to be as intense as the last one. Where Jeff gets into problems, he doesn't have that focus every single time and gives up a play he shouldn't give up. If you want to be a great player, you can't allow that to happen."

The 6'-6" Pocic is taller than most centers, who must block shorter nose guards. But Gilbert is pleased with Pocic's progress.

"Graham's been doing great. He's done a great job understanding the offense, picking things up and being the quarterback of the o-line. The biggest thing for him is, he's a tall kid playing center. He's got to continue to work on pad level and leg drive. That's an ongoing process for every offensive lineman."

There were some snap problems at the Rantoul High School scrimmage, but Pocic has been consistently good both with the direct snap and shotgun.

"We're trying our best to get that resolved," Gilbert explains. "A lot of them was with the third string center. We noticed how he was handling the ball, and we adjusted his hands a little bit."

Fifth year senior Hunt is secure at one guard.

"Randall Hunt has done a really good job. He's had a good camp as a senior. I think right now the other guard is still kind of even. That's where we're battling it out right now."

Cornell has made excellent progress and is considered a co-starter at the guard spot opposite Hunt. Thornton, who started at tackle as a freshman, is battling with Cornell for the starting job while getting reps at tackle to provide depth there. Gilbert says Thornton may be suffering from having to learn two different positions.

"I think it affects him a little from an assignment standpoint. Your sets and pass stuff is a lot different out on the edge than inside. With some young guys at the tackle spots, we don't have the luxury of saying he can be a one-spot player. We have to move some people around and have them play multiple positions."

Fourth year junior Craig Wilson has played sparingly his entire career, but he's now the first backup at both tackle spots. He is also making progress.

"Craig's coming along well. He's improved since the spring, and he's improved since last fall. Craig's a guy that just needs to keep getting reps and practice time. The more that he does, the better off he becomes. He's spending time at both tackles.

"Craig has a lot of athletic ability. What's clear is that Craig is getting a lot of reps, and he's pushing Ryan. He sees that, and Ryan continues to get better. Competition makes everybody better."

The only other tackle backups are true freshmen with little background for the rigors of college ball. They have potential and are sharing second team status, but it is hoped they will not be needed this season.

"Right now, we're splitting time between Simon Cvijanovic and Michael Heitz. Both of them are stepping up. They're doing well. They're still raw offensive linemen. They make a lot of mistakes and have a long way to go. They've gotten a lot of reps too, which has helped their progress."

Redshirt freshman Andrew Carter was moved from guard to tight end in the spring and back to guard this fall. He and true freshman Shawn Afryl need more reps also.

"Both are young guys. We experimented a little with Andrew going to tight end and helping us in a big package. That set him back a little bit. But (lately) he has come out and practiced with speed and intensity. Shawn is a freshman. It's harder to play inside than to play outside like in high school. He's figuring that out now."

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