It may be cliché, but it really does all start up front.
No matter how talented a team’s quarterback, running backs, and wide receivers are, the overall output of an offense is going to be limited by the offensive line’s ability to make holes and protect the passer. Illinois has been spoiled with exceptional offensive lines over the past few years, which have been led by many players who are currently in the NFL.
Now the Illini face the largest roster turnover on the offensive line that they have seen since 2017, but Bret Bielema and Bart Miller still have some serious talent at the position.
Working from the outside in, I see the tackle positions as being the most secure. Veteran tackle Alex Palczewski is an assured starter at right tackle in his sixth season. Palczewski has an all-time Illinois record 52 career starts (36 at tackle and 16 at guard) under his belt, and is currently rated as an All-Big Ten Third Team member by Athlon Sports. He’s also likely to be drafted into the NFL next year as long as he has another strong season in college, and Illini fans are fortunate that he decided to come back for one more year earlier this spring.
The other tackle spot is likely to be held by either junior Julian Pearl or junior transfer Isaiah Adams. Pearl, a native of Danville, started 10 games last year for the Illini and saw time in all 12. As a fairly experienced upperclassman, I would expect Pearl to start if he’s healthy. Isaiah Adams comes to Illinois from Garden City Community College in Kansas. A highly sought-after transfer, the Illini held off the likes of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, Arizona Wildcats, West Virginia Mountaineers, and other P5 schools for his services.
The interior of the offensive line is a little murkier, but I believe some combination of junior Jordyn Slaughter, transfer sophomore Zy Crisler, and senior Alex Pihlstrom will see the most playing time. Crisler and Slaughter both started the spring game at the guard positions, while Pihlstrom started at center. Zy Crisler previously played for Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, and he perfectly fits the physical mold of what the Illini want on the interior offensive line with a 6-foot-5, 360-pound frame. Jordyn Slaughter, from Belleville, missed the entire 2021 season with an injury, but sure looked 100% during the spring game. Pihlstrom moved to offensive line from tight end in 2020, and he has played in 20 games with seven starts since that time.
The future is bright on the offensive line, and I’m excited to see what many of the younger players have in store. I especially want to see how the staff uses Zachary Barlev, who started in last season’s stunning upset in Happy Valley as a key part of the now-famous “Barge Package”.
Another freshman, Josh Kreutz, is likely to see some playing time this season as well. Son of Chicago Bears great Olin Kreutz, Josh figures to be in line as the backup center, which is where he started for the blue team in the spring game. Tommy Cronin, a fourth-year sophomore from Oak Park River Forest High School near Chicago, could also be ready to emerge this season either on the offensive line or on special teams.
As the position group that drives the rest of the offense, I feel genuinely optimistic about the offensive line going into the 2022 season. That hasn’t always been the case with regards to Illini, but I’m glad they’re going to be bringing plenty of talent and experience to the trenches this upcoming season.