Blockers could be key to Illini offensive success

Entering this football season, it’s hard to dispute that running back Mikel Leshoure and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will be the keys to offensive success for the Illini.

Leshoure, a Champaign native who earned Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors in 2009, will look to lead a rushing attack that ranked second in the Big Ten and 17th nationally last season. Scheelhaase, a redshirt freshman, won a wide-open spring competition to earn his starting spot at signal-caller.

However, neither is likely to experience much success without first depending on another group — the offensive line.

“That’s where everything starts, those guys up front,” offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “They gotta make it go and they gotta work hard, and their toughness is really where everything starts.”

However, the group certainly isn’t feeling any added pressure with the season just over a week away.

“It’s not really pressure. It’s a compliment to us,” senior Randall Hunt said. “If they want to run the ball, we’ve got to do our job. And if we do our job, we’ll be successful.”

A first glance at the team’s depth chart would seem to reveal a lack of experience for the Illinois line, with just one senior and two sophomores listed as starters. However, a closer look reveals much more game experience. Junior left tackle Jeff Allen will be entering his third year as a starter, and left guard Hugh Thornton and center Graham Pocic both saw significant playing time last season.

“There’s nothing like game experience,” Allen said. “You’ve got a lot of knowledge, you know what’s coming, and the game just slows down for you.”

On the other side, Hunt will take over at right guard after starting 11 games at left guard last season while senior Ryan Palmer has three years of experience under his belt.

“I think (the offensive line) has had a good camp,” Illini head coach Ron Zook said. “We’ve got eight guys we think we can win with. We gotta move them around and keep them going.”

One of the biggest tasks charged to this group will be protecting Scheelhaase, as opposing defenses are likely to try to pressure the young quarterback early and often.

“I feel responsible (for Nathan),” said Allen, who will be in charge of protecting the signal caller’s blind side. “He’s like my child. I gotta protect him at all costs and make sure he’s healthy.”

The O-line won’t be without help, though. Much like Juice Williams the past four years, Scheelhaase is a quarterback who isn’t afraid to use his speed and athleticism if he feels the pocket beginning to break down, something Allen said he appreciates, even if he wouldn’t mind not seeing it.

“It’s great for a tackle, (having a mobile quarterback),” Allen said. “He can save you from giving up a sack, so it’s a great thing, but my goal is not to give up any sacks.”