There’s no other position group on the field more important than the offensive line. It is the base from which every play is starts. Give me a great offensive line and I’ll show you a team that can do most anything with the ball, by land or air.
And I’m proud to able to tell you that Illinois has earned itself a very solid O-line for the coming 2019 season. (And beyond.) The basics are simple. The Fighting Illini return four starters from last year — all of whom started all 12 games — and the one replacement is likely going to be a transfer from Alabama. To say the absolute minimum about this preseason outlook, that’s about exactly what you want to hear from one of these articles. This is a positional unit that’s set up to succeed.
Here is the projected line in bullet list form:
- LT - Vederian Lowe, JR - 6-6, 320
- LG - Kendrick Green, Redshirt SO - 6-4, 310
- C - Doug Kramer, Redshirt JR - 6-2, 300
- RG - Richie Petitbon, SR Transfer - 6-4, 305
- RT - Alex Palczewski, JR - 6-6, 300 (3.85)
And lo, four upperclassmen upon the line. Ages have passed in Champaign, listless and wanting, with few grown men to portend the way. But, I’m getting rather exaggerated. Though who can really blame me? This kind of line is exactly the type of thing that I’ve wanted for years. The offensive lineman is the hardest position to recruit in all of college football. That’s mostly due to the size of the player — no matter what a coach screams and yells during practice, it can’t make a player have longer arms or a lower natural center of gravity. The only thing that makes a player grow is time. And upperclassmen are the ultimate answer when it comes to offensive linemen.
That and a complete understanding of the scheme and how to communicate with fellow linemen. And with a new offensive line coach, that experience is going to go a long way. Bob McClain comes in to replace Luke Butkus (who’s off to coach for the Green Bay Packers). McClain’s pushing this year’s players to hone in on footwork and technique. Butkus focused a lot on the mentality of playing the game. With an education that now spans multiple years, the Illini have four solid, road-worn starters who have been through two different schools of thought. Provided that the switch between line coaches does not cause theologies to conflict, those that work hard will have extra knowledge to bring to the field on Saturdays. Another reason why having upperclassmen is really going to pay off.
It’s remarkable, really. There’s this feeling over the past few years that Lovie Smith had to really work to pay off the toll that was caused by the previous coach-switching, administration-conversion, poor-recruiting of years past. The Illini under Smith have a winning percentage of .250. We all are awaiting this team to get to the point where it’s at least bowl eligible, which we all kind of hopelessly hope for by looking at the projected future rosters.
But out of nowhere, this offensive line has matured into something formidable that we get to watch this year. They created the holes for the second-best rushing attack in the Big Ten last year. Now imagine they do that again, improve on their sack rates even by a percent or two, and you have one outstanding group to behold. The Illini have two junior tackles that are clearly making a notable difference in early practice sessions, a very promising left guard in Kendrick Green (who’s possibly here for three more season), and the center position covered by Doug Kramer, who seems to have won the confidence and respect of everyone in the program. I submit that this starting group of five is the best position group on the roster. And we can fight about that if you want, whatever. If they all stay healthy, you’ll look like a sucker. If one or two get injured, I’ll just— well, there’s my scapegoat.
But a good O-line preview does take into account the depth of group and I can say that this is also a good thing, though I’m not as high on them as I am with the starting five.
We’ll start with what happens behind right guard Richie Petitbon. Although he is the projected starter, and appears to be getting the starting team reps in practice, it’s not a forgone conclusion that it’s his by rights. It’s important to note that Petitbon never started at Alabama, but he did play in games and he received world-class coaching.
He’s competing against quite a few other guys. Guards Kievan Myers and Jordyn Slaughter are probably the closest to steal the role, but so is redshirt junior center Kurt Gavin. And that’s not mentioning Verdis Brown, a former 4-start defensive tackle who converted to the offensive side this offseason.
For the backups at tackle, there’s redshirt junior Jake Cerny and redshirt freshman Julian Pearl. I’m just going to admit that it’s hard to talk about all these backup linemen. Every one of them has a real, strong chance of turning into a quality starter someday down the road. So it’s hard to just be like, “eh, these guys aren’t doing much this year.” They’re growing. They’re learning. When Lowe, Green, Kramer, and Palczewski were backups, almost all the same stuff was being pumped through the internet. They’re good, just not good enough to start right now over these upperclassmen.
This team has something good here. I know most of you don’t watch the O-line when you watch football (which makes me doubt if you’ll even read these 1,000 words) but do not miss this. There’s a chance that these four returning lineman are going to be returning next year and then they’ll be all hyped up across the internet. I’m telling you now to keep your eyes peeled. Because if they’re not great now, they will be by the end of the season. It’s a thing of beauty that I’ve been waiting for since forever.