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2021 Illinois Football: Offensive Line Preview

One of the most experienced units on the team is ready for action in 2021.

NCAA Football: Big Ten Conference Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

The offensive line is loaded with experience. To be exact, the returning players bring a combined total of 123 Illini starts into the current season, not counting starts at other schools. That’s an impressive amount of playing time that these players have under their belts, and it also gives younger players a chance to develop slowly, which is a luxury many of the projected starters didn’t have early on in Lovie Smith’s regime.

The key to any successful football offense starts with the offensive line. Recent Illini history is filled with examples of poor offensive lines leading to poor overall offenses, most notably in 2012 and 2017 during the early years of the Tim Beckman and Lovie Smith eras respectively.

With luck, Bret Bielema and Bart Miller, his offensive line coach, will be able to break this string of growing pains by using the immense amount of offensive line talent and experience at their disposal.

2021 Likely Starters

Vederian Lowe, Left Tackle (SR)

Securing the return of Rockford native Vederian Lowe was a crucial early win for Bret Bielema. The massive 6-foot-6, 320-pound Lowe has been an anchor of the Illini offensive line going back to his freshman season in 2017, during which he started seven games and played in eight. Since that time, he’s racked up 40 starts and ended last season with a string of 34 straight starts. Lowe is one of two Illini named to the Outland Trophy watch list, and he was also selected to give the kickoff speech at Big Ten Media Days this year.

Blake Jeresaty, Left Guard (SR)

The Wofford Terriers transfer missed all of 2020 with an injury, but is primed to return in 2021 and start at the left guard position. As a testament to his ability, Phil Steele placed Jeresaty on his preseason All-Big Ten Fourth Team without even seeing him play a down for a power five conference team. Provided he can stay healthy, the 6-foot-2, 305 pound Jeresaty should prove to be an excellent addition to the line.

Doug Kramer, Center (SR)

Like Lowe and Alex Palczewski, the 6-foot-2, 305-pound Doug Kramer has been a fixture for the Illinois offense since his first start during the 2017 season opener against the Ball State Cardinals. Four years and 37 starts later, Kramer is set to lead the Illinois offense once again. As one of the most distinguished members of an extremely talented unit, Kramer has been named to the Pro Football Focus preseason All-Big Ten Second Team, as well as an Honorable Mention in PFF’s preseason All-America list. He’s also been named to Phil Steele’s preseason All-Big Ten Fourth Team and the Athlon preseason All-Big Ten Third Team, in addition to being on the watch lists for the Rimington, Outland, and Rotary Lombardi awards.

Alex Pihlstrom, Right Guard (JR)

During the 2021 spring game, the 6-foot-6, 300-pound Pihlstrom appeared to be the starter at the right guard position, so that’s going to be the assumption unless circumstances change ahead of the season opener. Pihlstrom was a walk-on who played his first game at tight end against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights in 2019. Last season, he played in every game at guard and started two. Right guard is certainly one of the more fluid positions heading into the 2021 season, so I expect Pihlstrom will need to continue to improve to keep the starting job.

Alex Palczewski, Right Tackle (SR)

Yet another player who needs little introduction, the 6-foot-6, 315-pound tackle from Mount Prospect has started 40 games for the Illini, though he missed the last four games of last season with an injury. The bevy of experience that Palczewski brings all but assures he’ll have the right tackle position locked down for the 2021 season, as long as he can stay healthy. Palczewski was named to the 2021 Athlon preseason All-Big Ten Third Team.

Depth Players

Jack Badovinac, Guard (SR)

Badovinac chose to transfer to Illinois from Colgate, and went to high school at Loyola Academy in Wilmette. At 6-foot-1, 300-pounds, Badovinac is slightly undersized for the Big Ten, but he distinguished himself by earning an All-Patriot League First Team selection from Phil Steele and the conference coaches in 2019.

Julian Pearl, Tackle (SO)

A native of Danville, the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Pearl brings plenty of athleticism and skill to the tackle position. He made his debut in 2019 and started three games last season, with his first start coming against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Expect Pearl to see significant playing time in 2021 as one of the first players off the bench.

Moses Okpala, Tackle (RS-FR)

Lovie Smith often gave his most talented linemen a chance to play on the defensive line before moving them to offense. Like Kendrick Green and Verdis Brown, Moses Okpala started his career on defense during his freshman year before being moved to offense. With a 6-foot-7 frame, Okpala has the body type to be a future anchor of the Illini offensive line, but he has plenty to learn about technique after only playing two games on the offensive line last season.

Brody Wisecarver, Guard (FR)

As an ESPN four-star prospect, Wisecarver chose Illinois over offers from the likes of the Kentucky Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa State Cyclones, and Michigan State Spartans. Wisecarver has the potential to be a multi-year starter at either guard or tackle, but as is often the case with the offensive line, years of experience and technique development is crucial. I don’t expect Wisecarver to make much of an impact until 2022 or later.

Other reserve offensive linemen could make an appearance this year, such as Josh Plohr and Josh Kreutz (son of former Chicago Bears great Olin Kreutz) on the interior offensive line, or Evan Kirts at the tackle position. The coaching staff’s recent decision to move Verdis Brown to the defense, after he started several games at guard last season, is a display of confidence that this position group has the talent and experience it needs to succeed.