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New-look Illini offensive line preparing for action in 2017

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Senior lineman Christian DiLauro answers questions during Big Ten Media Days on July 24.

Senior lineman Christian DiLauro answers questions during Big Ten Media Days on July 24.

Eli Schuster

Eli Schuster

Senior lineman Christian DiLauro answers questions during Big Ten Media Days on July 24.

Gavin Good, Assistant sports editor

When Illinois kicks off against Ball State at Memorial Stadium on September 2, the offensive line tasked with protecting Chayce Crouch and running backs Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin from opposing defenses will bear little resemblance to last season’s group. 

Gone are stalwart center Joe Spencer and reliable tackle Austin Schmidt. The Illini only have 13 total linemen on the roster, and seven of them have never seen a single second of action.

They do, however, have returning senior Christian DiLauro, a three-year starter, returning redshirt junior Nick Allegretto to anchor the line, and redshirt sophomore Gabe Megginson, who started 10 games last season.

Other than that, there are a lot of unknowns.

There are three true freshmen coming in, along with three redshirt freshmen and three sophomores returning. Of all of the returning underclassmen, only Megginson and Adam Solomon, who primarily played on special teams, have played in a collegiate game.

DiLauro is confident in his line despite their inexperience. He believes there is a strong core that will provide solid protection for the Illinois offense.

“The nice thing is we have five players right now that we’ve gone through the spring with,” DiLauro said. “Me, (Megginson, Allegretti), Adam Solomon, and Doug Kramer for the starting line. That can be moved around and we’ll see what works best, but with us five, we have a bond across the board and we know how we all work.”

Lovie Smith echoed the attitude of DiLauro, and said that the lower numbers will help younger players gain experience quickly.

“In the initial stage of building your program, that’s (going to) be the case,” Smith said. “Nobody wants to hear about our low numbers right now. We’ll have enough guys to put a starting lineup out there and be two deep, which should be enough.”

Smith plans to use the Illini’s understaffed line as a recruiting pitch, too.

“For this recruiting class that we have, it’s an opportunity to people to say, ‘hey, the numbers are down a little bit,” Smith said. “It’s gonna be a program that I can come and play a little bit early at.”

A major point of confidence for this Illinois team heading into camp is the physical strength they have gained throughout rigorous offseason workouts, which has been a focus for the squad.

Before the offseason, only two Illini could squat 500 pounds. Now, over 20 Illinois players have hit the 500 mark.

DiLauro credits Smith’s decision to begin spring practice earlier than most football programs as a reason for the gains in brawn, as the team had more time to spend on their workout routines and diets than they otherwise would have.

“Us having that early spring ball gave us that extra time in the spring to get after it a little bit more,” DiLauro said. “Going from there, we had our three weeks off in May, where we got our bodies rested up. Then when we came in June we were able to hit the ground running and build off of what we already had.”

DiLauro also cited talented and sizable newcomers as reasoning for his confidence in the line, with Smith recruits Larry Boyd and Veteran Lowe coming in at 360 and 340 pounds, respectively.

Whether the line’s inexperience or its talent and versatility will be prominent remains to be seen, and though camp starts on July 30, much will remain unknown until the group is tested in real play.

Strong play from the offensive line will be necessary for what is sure to be a run-heavy offense.

gavinrg2@dailyillini.com

@itsallG_O_O_D

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