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On Either Side of the Line

Illinois Offensive and Defensive Lines present different views of the present and future.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Nebraska Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

At 262.8 yards per game, Illinois has the eighth-ranked rushing attack in the country. That’s just a couple spots below Wisconsin’s vaunted running attack and a step above Oklahoma’s ridiculous offensive juggernaut. It took a little while, but Illinois and Rod Smith have created an identity.

And besides AJ Bush’s long strides or Reggie Corbin’s short area quickness or Mike Epstein’s vision, the offensive overhaul has started with the physicality and improvement on the sophomore-laden line.

Verdarian Lowe (So.), Kendrick Green (Rs.-Fr.), Doug Kramer (Rs.-So.), Nick Allegretti (Sr.) and Alex Palczewski (So.) have made outstanding progress throughout the year and are collectively the brightest sign for a working rebuild. If Illinois is going to get to an acceptable place amongst its peers it’ll have to win along the lines, and on offense we’re cooking with gas. Not only does Illinois return everyone but Allegretti next season, but it can plug in a redshirted Larry Boyd and fill in the gaps with some developing depth like Kievan Myers, Jordyn Slaughter or the recently committed Jakai Clark.

To me, that’s the way we want this thing to look in all directions, with each unit coming into their own with young talent and recruits on campus developing for their eventual role within the system. If I had a couple picks, offensive line would be my second choice.

Now let’s get to what I’d pick first: defensive line.

When the line is getting driven in all directions and not generating a lick of pass rush, it’s tough to take a step back and remind yourself how young they are. There was a time on Saturday when I was sitting with a friend and describing Bobby Roundtree: “He’s only a sophomore, and if you watch him, you can see just how powerful a defensive end he’s going to be with just one more year in the weight room.”

With Roundtree, you can already see signs of a really good Big Ten player. A possible draft pick, even.

But with the rest, you’re just not seeing it. When you see a 3rd-and-long and for some reason your defensive head coach has abandoned the stunts or blitzes that worked so well the week prior, and you have to watch the four lineman go straight into the offensive line and get completely owned over and over, you wonder what they’re learning in practice. I’d jump out of my chair and scream with delight if I saw one good pass-rush move. I would at least pump my fist if I saw an attempted one. Against South Florida, I saw Isaiah Gay counter his fly 20-yards-up-field move with a Von Miller-type spin back inside. It didn’t work, but at least it showed some creativity, and maybe a coaching tip.

I really like Seth Coleman and Moses Okpala coming in, and Verdis Brown has had a year in the program and I was pretty excited to see the progress from Owen Carney and Isaiah Gay, but beyond bigger biceps there hasn’t been much production. Is the unit just too young to show the potential? Or is the coaching staff putting too much on them and under-equipping them with tools? Whatever it is, it’s not working, and unlike the offensive line, it hasn’t got better this year.

Rewind a year and you’d probably read similar criticism of the offensive line and Luke Butkus. Then Butkus was free of Garrick McGee, the guys got stronger, and we’ve got one of the better units in the conference. So it’s not out of the question that next year’s defensive line makes huge strides, but as for evidence of that outside of Bobby Roundtree? A few Calvin Avery flashes, and that’s about it.

As evidenced by the number of returning contributors to the 2019 team, some of these questions should be answered. The question of whether next fall will be more fun will be answered along BOTH lines.

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