Most of Tim Beckman's tenure as head coach from 2012-14 could be described as fixing bullet holes with a band-aid. The Illinois roster was so depleted when he took over, the Illini were so desperate for warm bodies at positions that Beckman and his staff were forced to overuse the JUCO market to have players that were physically ready to compete at the Big Ten level. It's really, really hard to cultivate depth that way. Slowly but surely, however, the Illini finally have amassed an intriguing mix of experience and young talent along the offensive line.
Returning starters: Austin Schmidt (SR), Christian DiLauro (JR), Joe Spencer (SR),
Key losses: Ted Karras (NFL Draft; Patriots - 6th round), Chris Boles (graduation)
Other returners: Nick Allegretti (R-SO), Zach Heath (JR)
Newcomers: Gabe Megginson (R-FR), Adam Solomon (R-FR)
One factor to watch is that Illinois will be going back to having a "strong side" tackle and a "weak side" tackle, rather than having guys line up at left or right tackle every down. This philosophy was last seen at Illinois in 2011 with former offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. Losing Teddy Karras will hurt, no doubt. Spend five minutes around the Illinois football program in recent years, and you'd see that Karras was the heart, soul, and leader of the team. A tailor-made replacement for Karras is redshirt sophomore Nick Allegretti. He was a highly-touted recruit coming out of high school, and appeared in 11 games last season as a redshirt freshman and sets up to be a three-year starter at guard.
Spencer is an anchor at center with 26 career starts and he was put on the Rimington watch list, awarded to the nation's top center. On the edges, DiLauro and Schmidt have a combined 35 starts between the two of them, and they have plenty of experience after being thrown into the fire early in their careers. Add in Megginson as depth and Wes Lunt should have decent protection when dropping back to throw in his last year in Champaign. The only real question mark on the line is the other guard position. Zach Heath has the size at 6-foot-4, 300 lb., but has appeared in only one career game after tearing his ACL against Western Illinois. Connor Brennan and Jordan Fagan saw time in six and nine games, respectively, last season and could also carve out a role with a solid summer.
Lunt is a statue in the pocket and has a tendency to hold the ball longer than he should, so providing him with solid protection is a must for the Illini. The unit allowed 20 sacks last season, good for 45th nationally, and that number could be even better this year. Illinois wants to be a run-first offense -- a dynamic shift from recent years -- so the pressure will be on the big guys to open up holes for Ke'Shawn Vaughn to scamper through.