Illini football’s offensive line trying to find starting five

There is no question that the Illinois offensive line is a tight group. The offensive linemen take pride in being more than teammates. They are roommates and they are friends. They live together, eat together and take classes together. They take pride in saying that every offensive lineman lives with at least one other offensive lineman.

But as the opening game of 2012 campaign looms, the questions surrounding these Illini remain difficult to decipher. No group has been more of an enigma than the offensive line, which has yet to decide on a starting five. After losing seniors Jack Cornell and Jeff Allen, who logged 47 consecutive starts to end his collegiate career, from last year’s squad, the Illini are left filling the holes of a unit that has not been stellar.

It’s easy to find fault with a team that lost six straight games, and it’s easy to pick on an offense that struggled as much as Illinois’ did in 2011. But the numbers tell the tale. The Illini surrendered 36 sacks last year, ranking 102nd in college football and 10th in the Big Ten, which only ranked above Northwestern and Ohio State. They also allowed 89 tackles for loss, good for 101st in the FBS and 10th in the Big Ten, above Ohio State and Indiana. But Illinois allowed more sacks in the six wins (22) than in the

six losses (14) last year.

“Last year, the last six games, you could see that we were as talented a group as there is in the Big Ten when we can mesh together correctly,” senior lineman Graham Pocic said. “It’s more about being in sync as an offensive line than it is about talent.”

Pocic, who rooms with fellow offensive linemen Hugh Thornton, Tony Durkin and Ted Karras, has started every game the last two seasons at center. Under new head coach Tim Beckman and new offensive line coach Luke Butkus — the nephew of the former Illini and Chicago Bears great Dick Butkus — the line has continually been tinkered with, and Pocic now appears to be moving to left guard. Returning starter Thornton has been moved from guard to tackle. Beckman and Butkus have made it clear that they are looking for the best linemen, no matter what position they have experience in.

“Everyone’s doing what they need to do, everyone’s happy to do it,” redshirt freshman Karras said. “It’s just getting adjusted and maybe putting your left hand down instead of your right hand.”

Beckman and Butkus will have their work cut out for them figuring out how to protect quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and create holes for a young running back core, namely Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young. Beckman’s new dual-threat offense will feature sets unlike what the Illini ran under former head coach Ron Zook. Beckman said it is likely there will be two running backs, or even two

quarterbacks, on the field at the same time.

“The challenge will be on the offensive line to provide for Young and Ferguson and hopefully some of the young freshmen to step in and play,” Beckman said. “It’s a commitment that our offensive staff has made to running the football and we’ve got to establish the run first for us to be successful.”

The coaching staff will likely continue toying with the offensive line until Illinois meets Western Michigan on Sept. 1. The players themselves have enjoyed trying out different positions and working with different combinations on the line. Although Pocic may be considered the leader of the group, he does not feel that this distinction gives his teammates enough credit.

“I have some of the most experience, but I feel like we lead each other,” he said “We set examples by the way we work. We don’t have to do much talking. We just go out there and work hard.

“We feed off of each other and we’re constantly teaching each other. It’s not really me teaching everybody. It’s Hugh giving me pointers. It’s Toni reminding me about something. It’s a good group because everyone meshes well with each other.”

The linemen will have no choice but to mesh well because come next Saturday any one of them could find themselves on the field. And until they are on the field, and the season is under way, the questions will remain unanswered.