When I started researching for this column, I was going for a completely different article.
On The Champaign Room, the nostalgia had been working wonders on views, readsers, and time spent on the site. So, with Bielema being of a offensive linemen stature and his love of winning the football game in the trenches, I was going to do a two-part column reviewing the best offensive and defensive lines Illinois has ever had and a column comparing the 2023 lines to the best of the past.
But then I was reminded of this statement made by Bielema two seasons ago:
#Illini Bret Bielema not holding back about his roster today, especially OL:— Bret Beherns (@WCIA3Bret) October 18, 2021
"I don't believe we have a player in the 2-deep that they've recruited here over the last 3 years that is really significantly doing anything for us in the playing department, that's a major concern" pic.twitter.com/CSvWn0MmJD
The media was all up in arms about this statement, which Bielema never backed down from. And looking back at it, he was very, very, very right.
That is not to say Illinois had bad offensive linemen; Illinois had some of the best from the 2010s play in Bielema’s first season. Illinois' previous staffs just never developed linemen outside of the starters. Let me put it into perspective.
Here is a list of starting offensive linemen from this century. Sure, I may have missed a few starters, but my criteria was that the player had to start at least 7 games a season.
If possible, I would open the sheet in a different tab and follow along. I will try and put screenshots, but following along the sheet will provide the best experience. Here is what I gathered:
- From the year 2000 to 2014, Ron Turner and Ron Zook relied on experienced 4-year lineman, who handed the reigns off to another 4-year lineman. Bucky Babcock to Matt Maddox, to the voice of Illinois radio Martin O’Donnell, all the way down to Christian DiLauro where the trend stops.
- Also on average, there was more than one 4-year linemen, with at most 2 linemen getting replaced every year. What this allowed for was some consistency to carry over year over year, keeping the core of the line extremely stable.
So what happened in 2014? Beckman had his issues on and off the field, which led to a recruiting slump in all areas of the field and affected the Illinois offensive line massively.
In 2014 Illinois only had three linemen who started more than 7 games, and in 2016 had six different linemen starting 7 games. Illinois not only had to rotate through linemen but also couldn't keep a consistent group together.
While on the face level, Illinois probably had a stable line; it was because of Karras, DiLauro, Allegretti, Kramer, V-Lowe, and Palcho that Illinois could maintain any level of stability. In short, Illinois had linemen ready for the NFL and linemen that would be ready for the NFL — and nothing past that.
2017 had possibly the best O-line of DiLauro, Allegretti, Kramer, V-Lowe, and Palcho, but that line only played together for one year. (2018 replaced DiLauro with another NFL linemen — Kendrick Green)
But why is this a problem? You had NFL-level talent on the offensive line — isn't that a good thing?
Yes, but also no. Here’s why:
When you have freshmen linemen starting their true or redshirt year and stay starting until the time they graduate, you fail to give reps to the developmental guys or guys who would be their replacement.
Illinois masked its offensive line problem by relying on short-term stability and kicked the can down to road until, well, Bielema made the controversial statement.
So what has happened since? How has Bielema resolved the offensive line problem?
Kramer, Lowe, and Palcho somehow stayed. This allowed Bielema to build his base. Palcho came back for a sixth year and provided that much-needed experience on the Illinois offensive line.
This retention allowed Bielema to build back that base of two to three 4-year players to anchor the line.
With the lack of homegrown talent, Bielema looked to the transfer portal and junior colleges for much-needed support. Zy Crisler (Mississippi Gulf Coast CC) and Isaiah Adams (Garden City CC) brought ready-to-play talent to Illinois and gave some time to build up the two-deep roster at Illinois.
In just two years, Illinois is deep. The Illini brought in beefy recruits to bolster the line for the future. Two linemen from the class of 2022, Josh Kreutz and Josh Gesky, should take their first starting snaps this year. Right behind them, Magnus Moller, Zach Barlev, Hunter Whitenack, Clayton Leonard, and Joey Okla should see some crucial backup time this year.
Illinois only improved on this stockpile of offensive linemen in the 2023 and 2024 classes, even stealing Caleb Pyfrom from under Nebraska’s nose:
Which brings me to my last point.
We hear Bielema speak about his development guys a whole lot in every press conference he gives. One guy he doesn't speak about much as a devo guy is Jordyn Slaughter — the OL Sixth Man of the Year. You can’t write an Illinois offensive line column without mentioning Slaughter.
Jordyn is one of those guys who has gone from not playing much to being a key cog in the lineup after coming back from injury in 2021. He is probably the best example of how Bielema thinks of his backups.
Unlike most of the last decade, Illinois sees its backups as players who can contribute, not numbers to fill the scholarship quota. This is not about the players, it’s about the philosophy of the coaching staff.
To tie this all back, Bielema has gone back to the “two new starters” every year, and the depth he is building should start the trend up again to stay consistent for the next few years.
So how does the 2023 O-line stack up? Well, that is for another day.