RANTOUL, Ill. -- If you've ever found a five dollar bill in the pocket of some old jeans, then you know what it must have felt like for Tim Beckman and the Illinois Fighting Illini coaching staff to witness the play of senior offensive lineman Chris Boles in summer camp.
Not one week ago, our projected depth chart included senior offensive lineman Chris Boles as the second-string right tackle, which seemed like an optimistic take given his football résumé to that point.
Yet five days later, despite participating in just three games on the field goal protection unit over his entire career, Boles is the current leader of the Fighting Illini's most crucial position battle.
Boles is six-foot-four and 320 pounds, making him the biggest of any likely candidate for the position. In a profile by the News-Gazette's Bob Asmussen, Boles said the biggest factor in his meteoric rise on the depth chart was his commitment to an offseason workout plan that has him in the "best football shape of his life".
How did Boles do it? You can probably guess the first part: hard work.
"I’ve definitely toned up and got stronger," Boles said.
It was now or never.
"My last year, I want to be remembered," Boles said. "I want to be that guy on the 2015 Illinois football team who went to the Rose Bowl and was a contributor for my teammates."
Setting the goal of a Rose Bowl seems more than a tad bullish for this squad, but Boles has a chance to make a significant impact on a team hoping to creep out of the morass that is the lowest tier of Big Ten football.
Four positions on the offensive line are squared away with Big Ten-caliber starters. From left to right, Austin Schmidt, Joe Spencer, Ted Karras and Christian DiLauro should be a solid, if unspectacular, group to help combat elite defensive linemen like Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa and Nebraska defensive tackle Vincent Valentine.
Head coach Tim Beckman has spent all spring and summer searching for the missing fifth piece of a puzzle which could unlock the astronomical potentials of Wes Lunt and Josh Ferguson.
Redshirt freshman Nick Allegretti is likely to push Boles hard for the starting spot, as well as junior college recruit Zach Heath. Allegretti has taken his fair share of reps at left guard with the ones, but coaches insist that Boles is currently in control of the battle.
Allegretti isn't quite all there yet mentally — he has a ways to go in understanding what exactly his role is on each play. He had some trouble picking up on unorthodox movements by the defensive line and looked a bit clumsy attempting to pull around Spencer, but he's still an advanced prospect for a redshirt freshman and could develop into the best interior lineman on the roster down the line.
The question surrounding Allegretti is whether the coaches should throw him into the fire and let him figure it out, or keep him on the bench as a sort of sixth man for the interior of the line, filling in as needed because of injury or necessitated rest.
But the discussion around Allegretti at left guard could all be rendered null by the experienced Heath. When the second string offense comes on the field, Allegretti acts as the center and Heath is the back-up left guard (Chris O'Connor has received a non-zero amount of time there as well).
Heath brings something neither Boles nor Allegretti does, and that's experience at the college level. Though Heath has yet to play in the Big Ten, his JUCO experience has made its presence felt as he deftly adjusts to the defensive line's movement. Heath may not have quite as much power as Allegretti and Boles, but what he lacks in strength he may just make up for in intelligence and a superior ability to protect Wes Lunt in the passing game.
However you slice it, some sacrifices will be made in selecting the starter at left guard this season. What Allegretti lacks in experience, he could make up for in spades with the highest upside of the group. Boles has little experience as well, but the most formidable body and an ability to bulldoze through smaller defensive tackles. Heath brings a mental fortitude unlike the others and can do a little bit of everything, but doesn't excel in any one facet of the game.
Even if Boles doesn't end up starting this season, the work he put in getting to this point is impressive on its own. Though few predicted him to be a significant contributor this season, he's making talented young guys like Allegretti and Heath dig deep in Rantoul for their chance at extensive playing time.
- None of the quarterbacks has looked particularly good in Rantoul, aside from the occasional NFL throw by Wes Lunt. Accuracy has been shaky for all the back-ups, but there's still reason to think one of them could see the field this season. Second string sophomore Chayce Crouch has the best running ability of all four quarterbacks (Lunt, Crouch, Jimmy Fitzgerald, Jeff George Jr.) and it's not hard to imagine Bill Cubit sending him in to pick up a few yards with an option play. Lunt is this team's quarterback, but don't be surprised to see Crouch on the field in the occasional package similar to what Reilly O'Toole provided for the Illini last season.
- Ke'Shawn Vaughn has all but cemented his status as the second string running back at this point. JUCO newcomer Henry Enyenihi might come in on third downs if Josh Ferguson is lined up in the slot, as his pass blocking ability has been slightly better than Vaughn's, but Enyenihi can look awkward trying to break through holes in the line. Vaughn is an instinctual runner with the ability to make one cut and fly upfield. Though he dons the former number of Donovonn Young and is similarly well built, he has much greater agility and top end speed than Young did in the open field.
- There isn't much to say about the tight ends right now because two of the likely top three on the depth chart, Tyler White and JUCO Andrew Davis, are sick and injured, respectively. We'll know more about how this position shakes out in a week. It might even take until the first game or two. Expect Tim Clary to play a bunch.
- Freshmen wide receivers Desmond Cain and Sam Mays have quickly worked their way up the depth chart into potential playing time this season. It would be nice to redshirt one of the young guys, and the more likely candidate to sit out the season is Mays. Mays has been compared to Geronimo Allison ad nauseam this summer, but it's not without good reason. If they swapped jerseys for a practice, I would have no idea which player was which from afar. Expect Mays to have a chance to contribute this season in a back-up role for GMo, but personally I'm hoping he won't be unleashed until 2016. As for Cain, he will almost certainly see time, at least until Justin Hardee and Mike Dudek return. Cain is currently backing up starting slot receiver Dionte Taylor (who looks great by the way) and could be the fourth receiver in the rotation right now. Illinois was at its best with four wide receivers on the field last season, which leads me to believe that fans will be seeing a lot of this young freshman from Florida in 2015.
- Gabe Megginson and Adam Solomon are large humans. Cool.
- If you ask me who I'd like to see at left guard against Kent State, it'd probably be either Allegretti or Heath. While Boles is a fantastic story and might be the best of the three at this very moment, he's likely already reached his ceiling while the other two options could grow exponentially if given significant playing time. It's hard to use platoon systems at a position on the offensive line, because it requires so much more communication and coordination among teammates than the skill positions, but I wouldn't mind seeing Heath and Allegretti trade drives for a game or two to help get them experience and allow the coaches to see what they have in a game situation. Both have a lot of potential and will get playing time this year regardless of who starts. Gun to my head, I'd predict Boles gets the start against Kent State, but Allegretti is starting at left guard by the end of the season.