CHAMPAIGN — The Lovie Smith era at Illinois was a near constant battle for offensive line depth. As in, there was never very much of it.
Smith’s first team had 15 offensive linemen — a combination of scholarship players and walk-ons — which was just enough to go three deep at every spot. Then came 12 offensive linemen in 2017 and 15 in both 2018 and 2019.
The Illinois offensive line group swelled to 21 during Smith’s last season. That group faced some offseason shuffling after athletic director Josh Whitman fired Smith and hired Bret Bielema.
Kendrick Green left early for the NFL. Three linemen from the 2020 class all transferred. A few walk-ons left the team. And two switched positions under the new coaching staff.
Illinois approaches its Aug. 28 season opener against Nebraska with 18 offensive linemen on the roster and 17 healthy after Jordyn Slaughter broke his ankle Wednesday during the third training camp practice.
The 6-foot-5, 320-pound native of Belleville will likely miss the entire 2021 season.
Enough depth to make it through the typical grind of a college football season. And an embarrassment of riches when it comes to experience thanks to multiple “super seniors” taking advantage of a bonus.
Just how much experience? Try 184 combined starts among veteran Illini Doug Kramer, Alex Palczewski, Vederian Lowe, transfer additions Blake Jeresaty (Wofford) and Jack Badovinac (Colgate) and part-time 2020 starters Julian Pearl and Alex Pihlstrom.
“It’s critical for our development having veteran guys like that,” Illinois offensive line coach Bart Miller said Friday afternoon outside Memorial Stadium. “We do have a fair amount of younger guys who don’t have a lot of experience. The maturation process that those guys have to go through, those veteran guys have been through that already. That adds a tremendous example for those younger guys.”
Three-fifths of Miller’s starting offensive line was basically set when he got the job. Kramer at center and Palczewski and Lowe at either tackle spot opted to take advantage of their bonus year of eligibility. Pearl, a Danville native, and Moses Okpala provide the next level of depth on the edge.
The two guard spots were a bit more up in the air. Slaughter was in the mix for one of those interior spots before breaking his ankle. The competition is now among Jeresaty, who is healthy after shoulder surgery last year cost him the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, Pihlstrom and newcomer Badovinac.
“Finally being able to compete with my guys during the fall and get ready in camp is so exciting,” Jeresaty said. “I’m not expecting to be the same player I was three days ago on Aug. 28. I hope I’m improved tenfold. I hope to get better every single day. It comes from the top with (Bielema) preaching that to us every day.”
Jeresaty (6-2, 305) and Badovinac (6-1, 300) have the experience edge on Pihlstrom, who transitioned from tight end to offensive line in 2020 and earned a scholarship. The transfer duo, who both earned numerous FCS honors, are also a bit undersized.
“We’re both hungry, undersized kids coming from the FCS level,” Jeresaty said. “We know we have to have that much better technique — we have to compete that much harder. That’s a thing from Coach Miller. He preaches that to the whole room, not just us, but we probably have to take it the extra mile.”
Miller is less concerned about size. No, Jeresaty and Badovinac might not hit on every desired measurable. Miller puts real value, however, in both their experience and the work they put in.
“You’ve got a guy (in Jeresaty) that does compete, that does work extremely hard,” Miller said. “He’s got some strength, he’s in the right place and he’s a great technician — him and Jack both. That can make up for a lot. The heart matters a hell of a lot more than some of those other things. That’s a big, big thing those guys add to that room. That’s the standard coming into that room. You don’t come into that room unless you have that.
“Those guys are incredibly strong, incredibly tough. They’re veteran guys that have seen a lot of different looks. Having that extra knowledge in a position of competition — a position of need — in camp is critical to help with our development and help shore a few things up on that line with some other veteran guys.”
Pihlstrom (6-6, 300) also factors into that competition for the two starting guard spots, and Miller has praised the former walk-on for the way he’s approached a new position and shown continued improvement. But Illinois’ desire to cross-train a number of its offensive linemen opens the door for more options, and the 6-6, 310-pound Pearl is a lineman Miller said he could see playing multiple positions.
“That’s a big part of what we do is versatility,” Miller said. “A lot of the skill sets we teach are similar. That is a big point of emphasis here. You are going to get cross trained, you are going to get developed and it’s a ‘next man up’ mentality.”