Illinois' offensive line struggled last year. A combination of inexperience, the difficulties of learning a new system, injuries, lack of depth, lack of athleticism, lack of quality tight end and fullback blockers, and all-out blitzing from opposing defenses designed to disrupt an inexperienced quarterback all contributed to offensive problems. Rebuilding the offensive line has been a high priority for Coach Ron Zook since arriving at Illinois.
It appears the rebuilding is making definite progress, if fall practices to date are an indication. Perhaps the biggest single improvement has come from the transfer of Oklahoma lineman Akim Millington to Illinois. Millington is a man mountain of athleticism at 6'-6" and 320 pounds. He combines quick feet with strength, leadership and confidence. Akim will be our anchor at the important left tackle position, and he will be a rock upon which the other linemen can rely during game action.
Joining Millington at right tackle is the ever-improving Charles Myles. The two are almost bookends in terms of height, weight and athleticism even though their bodies are built differently. The barrel-chested Myles has the legs of a basketball player and is said to be a dancer of some repute, proving his reputation for quick feet despite his bulk. He has only been an offensive linemen since the last few games of last season and still has room to improve as he gains experience. But some feel both Millington and Myles have pro potential. Having them on our offensive line for the next two years will be a big boost for the offense.
The other three likely starters on the line are all highly experienced. Senior Matt Maddox is a three-year starter who has been returned to his natural right guard position after centering last year. He appears to be much more comfortable at guard, where he can use his great strength and leverage to good effect.
The other guard is junior two-year letterman Martin O'Donnell. Ranked highly in high school, O'Donnell had an inconsist sophomore year, in part due to injuries, and is looking to reestablish himself as a top prospect. While he has not yet returned to his preinjury form, he knows his position and is the clear leader there.
The center will be Ryan McDonald, who started every game last year at right tackle as a redshirt freshman. The son of former Illini center Phil McDonald, Ryan brings intelligence and quickness to the position. Center is his natural position, and he appears to have an outstanding future there. Ryan will make the line calls for his teammates for each play, and his knowledge of the offense will come in handy.
Thus, the starting line will be big (they average over 300 pounds per man), experienced and talented. It is likely Illini quarterbacks will have more time to throw on pass plays, and running backs will have better holes to run through. They may not get much personal recognition for their play, but a top line can go a long way toward giving the Illini offense the boost it needs to outscore opponents.
While it is expected these top five will get most of the playing time, line coach Ed Warriner is not opposed to giving reserves opportunities if they deserve them. And several reserves have game experience and are capable of helping. James Ryan started every game last year at right guard, so his return will provide competition and allow rest for a starter once in awhile.
Jim LaBonte was expected to start at right tackle last year until summer back surgery ruined his season. Entering his fourth year in the program, LaBonte has the experience, size and nimbleness to help at either tackle spot and may be the first sub for both Millington and Myles. He won't beat out Myles or Millington, but his depth is an asset.
Eric Block saw action last year as a raw freshman. Eric is not real tall, but he is aggressive and has a mean streak. He is being groomed as a center to back up McDonald. Ben Amundsen is another fourth year junior who has seen some playing time in the past, and he can help out both at center and guard. Ryan, LaBonte, Block and Amundsen give the Illini more depth than they have had in the recent past.
Several other Illini linemen are competing for playing time, so the depth chart may still change before the start of the season. Adam Wilk, Will Bergen, Dan Motuliak, and Mike Nabolotny are four who are showing improvement. Wilk is a converted defensive lineman who has gotten some reps with the second team this fall at tackle. Bergen is a redshirt freshman and Nabolotny is a sophomore who played briefly as a freshman last year. Both need to continue work in the strength program to build mass and strength but have potential for the future. Nabolotny, a converted tight end, may be needed as an extra tight end blocker at times.
And speaking of potential, four freshmen are showing great promise. In fact, spring enrollee Randall Hunt may see action this year. Hunt has backed up Millington since arriving on campus. He is 6'-6" and 290 pounds and has quickness that is similar to Millington. Getting the chance to learn from Akim is helping prepare Hunt for future playing time. All Hunt needs is time and experience.
Freshman Ryan Palmer is the Illini's tallest player at 6'-7" and 315 pounds. He is athletic despite the size, with long arms and quick feet. He appears destined to man one of the two tackle spots in the near future, although it is hoped he will have a redshirt year to learn the system and gain strength and maturity.
Freshman Jon Asamoah is a talented guard/center who is quick and aggressive. The 265 pound Asamoah will need a year or two in Lou Hernandez' strength program to add the needed muscle and weight to compete in the Big Ten, but he has already made waves with his excellent early play.
And 290 pound freshman Brandon Jordan has recently been moved from defensive tackle to offensive right guard. Brandon has explosive athleticism for the position and played it extensively in high school. He is way behind learning the system and will likely be redshirted so he can gain the strength and conditioning to help him best utilize his athleticism. But he has already shown great promise. Illini coaches even think he might have pro potential.
When McDonald went down with a large gash in his leg and was out for a few days, Block became the #1 center, Amundsen became #2, Hunt became second string left guard, and Wilk became #2 left tackle. McDonald is expected to be fully recovered in time for the season, but these adjustments make it look possible that Randall Hunt will get playing time as a raw freshman. It is always better to redshirt young offensive linemen, but Hunt and possibly Jordan may show enough to demand minutes this year.
So far, there is only one down note regarding the offensive line, but it is a big one. J. J. Simmons started every game last year at left tackle and was expected to compete for a starting spot at guard this year. Unfortunately, two knee surgeries and complications from them have set back his progress. Since he is still limping this fall, it is highly unlikely he will be able to rehabilitate in time to help this year. He is a fifth year senior, so he may choose to petition the NCAA for a sixth year. If the extra year is granted, he can be a tremendous asset for next year's line.
The addition of Millington, the moves of Myles, Maddox and McDonald to their more natural positions, and the increased competition from other squad members gives Illini fans hope for our new offensive line. And the newcomers give great hope for the long-term.
If the offensive line comes through, the whole offense will be able to operate with improved efficiency and score more frequently. And this will help keep our young defense on the sidelines where they can rest longer between series. The Illini season record depends heavily on the success of the offensive line, and optimism reigns with our new unit.