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Who’s already in Champaign? What are coaches looking for?

Illinois v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Today we start a weekly series where we analyze what’s left position by position for Illinois Football and what needs to be recruited. This week we’ll start with the offensive line.

Only a parent would know what it’s like watching a child take its first steps. Only a football aficionado, someone who gets visceral excitement watching an offensive tackle’s kick step get quicker, would glow with the anticipation of watching offensive lineman develop.

At Illinois, superb run-blocking linemen were in vogue for almost a solid decade. But since Ron Zook’s recruiting fell off and Tim Beckman redefined the word “failure”, the line stopped moving people off the ball and the running game dried up. The quarterback play hasn’t done the line any favors, feigning a passing game that might cause linebackers or safeties to pause, but talent and depth along the offensive line has hampered the goals.

Enter Lovie Smith’s offensive line blueprint and the class of 2017, and hope runs beefy for the future of the Illini offensive front. Despite not having the luxury of redshirting to build bodies and minds, Illinois had several true freshmen, and a redshirt freshman, playing big minutes along the offensive line. I’m not sure people grasp how truly insane that was — these are 18- and 19-year-olds, months out of high school, playing against Ohio State and Wisconsin’s veteran fronts of beasts.

Mammoth freshmen Larry Boyd, Alex Palczewski and Verderian Lowe took their lumps as true freshmen starting in the Big Ten but picked up valuable experience for the coming seasons. Along with the underappreciated Doug Kramer at center, that crop of monsters should pave the way for miles of yardage. Nick Allegretti of course is the best of the bunch, but as an upperclassman he’ll have graduated when the incoming classes are gelling with the current linemen.

But as bright a future as those young lineman have, we’ve learned that depth is always a factor along the line. They played as not-yet-ready freshmen for a reason: There isn’t much around them. The 2018 class isn’t as deep on the line as 2017’s was, but it should still add some valuable pieces.

Kievan Myers, a 6-5, 330-pound guard from Texas, fits the mold of what Lovie’s been looking for — road graders with surprisingly quick feet and good bend. He’s probably the 2018 prospect that won’t have the chance to redshirt, but like Boyd/Palczewski/Lowe, he’ll hold his own. Reuben Unije, Jordyn Slaughter and Julian Pearl (with some health) should get the benefit of refining their body composition and learning the craft for a solid year before integrating with the other players mentioned, who by then should resemble a grizzled, top-tier, Big Ten offensive line like those of Illini past.

If you’ve done the math, you’ll notice I’ve mentioned eight guys, all freshmen and sophomores, that will factor into line depth. But that’s not enough. Some of those won’t pan out to be Big Ten-caliber contributors, and unfortunately there will be injuries that eat into the depth. So, recruit recruit recruit! Lovie, offensive coordinator Rod Smith and line coach Luke Butkus are on the trail trying to pull in more large, young men in 2019. The fruits of that labor haven’t resulted in any commitments yet, and an early in-state loss has added urgency.

All in the name of future help at tackle, JJ Guedet visited Illinois with his family, all decked out in Illinois gear, and a few weeks later committed to that annoying caricature in Minneapolis. The attention for help at tackle help transitioned to Joacheim Price from Algonquin, Illinois, a 6-9, 320-pound kid growing into his gargantuan body.

There is also “The Movement’s” prized beast in Ira Henry — built in the mold of Larry Boyd, Henry could help bolster the line as he has at Trinity. Henry has recent offers from Alabama and Michigan, but with the Corey Patterson connection, Illinois should stand a puncher’s chance.

At guard Illinois is able to concentrate some in-state efforts on Nic Broeker and Dave Monnot. Both have Illinois connections, but according to Twitter, both have been collecting offers recently, and we know how that’s gone for Illinois in-state. We’re the first to offer, crystal balls start to pop on 247 and then a few weeks later we see them enjoying their time at Minnesota or Iowa.

The cast of linemen isn’t nearly listed out in its entirety. It will continue to expand as time goes on, and with Illinois’ current clout it will depend heavily on the scouting department finding some big diamonds in the rough.

In a perfect world, the Illini’s 2019 class will include another four or five offensive lineman. But the arrow started trending up in 2017, and should continue building towards a substantial improvement for 2019-21. The sustained line strength is dependent on stacking classes, and starting to afford the opportunity to redshirt and build.