Among all of the position groups in football, the importance of the offensive line is almost certainly the most underrated.
Casual fans simply have little desire to watch these large men execute their pre-snap reads and blocking schemes. To be honest, I would rather watch Malik Turner break a tackle and go for 65 yards on a bubble screen than focus on Ted Karras as he pulls out and sets a key block.
The truth of the matter, however, is that a good offensive line can be (and often is) more essential to a good offense's production than a good receiving corps or stable of running backs. Luckily for the Illini, they're fortunate enough to have one of the most experienced lines in the Big Ten.
In 2013, the Illini line seemed neither great nor all that bad. Advanced offensive line stats from Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders seem to bear that assumption out at first glance. When one digs deeper into the data though, it becomes apparent that the success of the Illinois line depended largely on the duration of their blocking.
Last year, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's offense typically relied on a mix of quick passes and zone running during first and second down. The offensive line was frequently asked to block for merely a second or two, at which point Nathan Scheelhaase would already have the ball out of his hands. As you might expect, this quick-release strategy led to a very solid statistical performance from the Illini.
On "Standard" downs (think first down, second-and-medium, and third-and-short), the Illinois offensive line was efficient. They ranked 30th in the nation in Sack Rate (Sacks Allowed/Pass Attempts) during those manageable downs. They were also dominant in the short yardage game, ranking 14th (!!!) in the country in Power Success Rate. The Illini converted an impressive 77.3 percent of their carries with less than two yards to go for a first down or touchdown. Some of that short yardage success could also be attributed to the athleticism and running ability of Aaron Bailey.
Now, we must (regrettably) address the much more gruesome half of the equation. On "Passing" downs (think second-and-long, third-and-long), Illinois allowed sacks on a whopping 11.2 percent of snaps. That ranked a truly abysmal 111th in the country in 2013. When asked to carry a heavier load and give Scheelhaase extra time in the pocket so deep routes could develop, the O line wilted under pressure. Scheelhaase wasn't particularly good at throwing the ball away and occasionally ran himself into sacks, but there is still no excuse for doing such a poor job in pass protection.
There are two men on the offensive line who are completely locked into their spots. Starting on the outside, the first stud on the depth chart is senior left tackle Simon Cvijanovic. Simon has made 26 starts in his career going into this season. The primary role of any left tackle (with a right-handed quarterback) is to protect the QB's blind side. If Simon can do that against Nebraska's Randy Gregory and Ohio State's Joey Bosa, he will have had an incredibly successful senior season. Simon began as just a two-star recruit, but has developed into the best tackle on the team. His brother Peter is a freshman offensive lineman at Illinois this year.
The second name written in Sharpie on the depth is junior right guard Ted Karras. From what we know about the preseason practices for the Illini thus far, Karras has become the clear leader on the offensive line, despite being a year younger than three fellow starters. Karras is best used as a road grader, and he's perhaps the most talented lineman on the team. Expect to see Josh Ferguson and company running behind him as frequently as possible.
STARTING, BUT POSITIONS IN QUESTION
Though the next two players are absolutely assured a spot in the starting five, their positions will be decided largely by the ability of their backups. First up, Michael Heitz is the most versatile lineman on the team. He possesses the ability to play at just about any position except center, and he could probably figure that out too if he so desired. Heitz leads the line in career starts (31) and will be playing either left guard or right tackle this season. Heitz will do well at either of those spots, so his placement largely comes down to the personnel decisions of OL coach Tom Brattan. At this point, it seems most likely that Heitz will start at left guard.
Senior center Alex Hill was almost put into the lock category, but I switched him out at the last second. There are a couple of players who could potentially steal the center position away from Hill, causing him to move to left guard. As it stands now though, Hill will start in the middle for the second consecutive season. Regardless of where he ends up, Hill is another ferocious run blocker who will be a major asset for the Illini.
FIGHTING FOR A SPOT
With the four returning starters out of the way, we can move on to the most interesting question surrounding the line this year. Who will succeed fifth-year senior Corey Lewis at right tackle? The main candidates are junior Pat Flavin and redshirt-freshman Christian DiLauro. Based on the first team practices in Rantoul, the current leader of this position battle appears to be Flavin. Few were expecting Flavin to make such a substantial jump into a starter's role this year, but coach Tim Beckman and others have made it clear that he's had an excellent summer. If Beckman and Brattan are looking for a younger guy to groom for the future, DiLauro will be the man for the job.
On the inside, there lurks one man who could potentially oust Michael Heitz to the right tackle position. True sophomore left guard/center Joe Spencer was one of the top back-ups for the Illini O Line in 2013 and he's hoping to grab a starting role for the upcoming season. Spencer is one of two men who could potentially displace Alex Hill at center (True freshman stud Nick Allegretti is the other), but it seems likely at this point that he becomes the "sixth man" of this group. Spencer will probably back up Heitz/Hill/Karras at all of their positions and play plenty of snaps each game. Helping Spencer's case to be the top replacement is that there are really no other solid inside lineman on the bench (with the exception of Allegretti, who could take a redshirt this season).
One final personnel note: many predicted over the offseason that sophomore Austin Schmidt would be the heir apparent to Corey Lewis at right tackle. This will not likely be the case, as the coaching staff is now grooming Schmidt to take over the left tackle spot following the departure of Simon Cvijanovic.
|First String||Simon Cvijanovic||Michael Heitz||Alex Hill||Ted Karras||Pat Flavin|
|Second String||Austin Schmidt||Joe Spencer||Nick Allegretti||Joe Spencer||Christian DiLauro|
This is either the most known or second-most known quantity among Illinois' offensive position groups, depending on how you view the running back situation. With nearly 100 career starts returning on the line, it should be a banner year for face-smashing. Rumors from Rantoul have spread that the run blocking looks terrific, which would form a deadly trio with the elusive Josh Ferguson and physical Donovonn Young. If this team is able to get a consistent four to six yards from their first down rushes, the offense will likely have an incredible year because of Cubit's mastery of "Standard" down offense. Based on what we have seen in game action from the returners and the question marks surrounding its depth though, the 2014 offensive line grades out at a B.