Offensive line looks to dominate in 2021 after three senior starters announce returns

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Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Senior Jake Hansen prepares to hike the ball during competition.

By Josh Pietsch, Staff Writer

The Illinois offensive line will once again be one of the best in the Big Ten in 2021. After an impressive seven games in 2020, the O-line will be returning starters Alex Palczewski, Doug Kramer and Vederian Lowe next season.

Despite the departure of Lovie Smith, under whom Palczewski, Kramer and Lowe all played their entire Illinois careers, new head coach Bret Bielema has gotten all three of the senior starters to return for an extra season. 

Kendrick Green, arguably the best player on the roster in 2020, opted to forgo his senior season and enter the draft.

Despite Green’s departure, the offensive line is set to find success in a competitive Big Ten conference for the second straight year. Four of the five starters from 2020’s opener at Wisconsin are returning and a highly-regarded FCS transfer will round out the starters for new offensive line coach Bart Miller.

Right tackle Alex Palczewski was the first Illini to announce his return to the team for 2021, one of the best offensive linemen in the Big Ten. 

“Successful ACL surgery. I’ll be back and better than ever, see you in Ireland,” Palczewski wrote via social media. “Heal now and shine later.” 

Palczewski has been starting on the Illinois offensive line since his freshman season and was widely considered one of Illinois’ safest bets to eventually become an NFL lineman heading into the 2020 season. Despite impressive play in three and a half games this year, he suffered a season-ending injury when he tore his ACL in November at Rutgers.

“(Coming back) wasn’t really my decision; it was my ACL’s decision,” Palczewski said. “Wasn’t happy with the way I left it off, so I just decided to fire it up one more year.”

Awards for Palczewski began after his sophomore season, earning All-Big Ten honorable mention by the media and was voted onto the All-Big Ten first team by Pro Football Focus. He was impressive yet again in 2019, as he started all 13 games at right tackle and earned All-Big Ten third team honors, voted on by the coaches.

Despite not being totally NFL ready after 2019, any improvements in 2020 would have made Palczewski a pretty safe bet to get drafted. He may still be on a lot of people’s boards, but draft stock is always hurt with a season-ending injury like a torn ACL.

Regardless of the injury, Illinois should feel lucky to have Palczewski back for a fifth season. He is a proven lineman and leader and will lead one of the Big Ten’s best lines in 2021.

Center Doug Kramer was the second Illini to announce his return to the team in 2021, the first to do so since the Bielema hire.

“After weighing the options and meeting with Coach Bielema, my family and I have decided that it is best for me to stay at the University of Illinois for the 2021 season!” Kramer announced via his social media. “I take a tremendous amount of pride in being able to represent every player that has worn this uniform in the past and the best fans in the country. I look forward to seeing you all in Memorial Stadium next season.”

After redshirting his freshman year, Kramer started eight games as a redshirt freshman and earned All-Big Ten freshman honorable mention. In his sophomore season, Kramer started all 12 games and showed moments of brightness, but still struggled against some bigger linemen.

Kramer is considered undersized, standing at only six-foot-two, but he has made up for it with his skills and strength. He is a built 300-pound center that has shown great strides as an upperclassman. 

2019 was a big one for Kramer, again starting all 12 regular-season games and helped lead the Illini to the Redbox Bowl, which he missed due to an injury. He was voted an All-Big Ten honorable mention and was the No. 8 graded center in the nation, No. 3 in the Power-5, by Pro Football Focus.

He also didn’t allow a sack in 751 snaps.

Kramer had to miss two games due to contact tracing for the coronavirus in 2020 but was once again efficient when playing. He was voted an All-Big Ten honorable mention for the second straight season and was on the Wuerffel Trophy watch list for his academic excellence. 

On top of his contributions on the field, Kramer is one of the team’s biggest leaders. He is a two-time team captain and is acknowledged by the whole team as a voice in the locker room.

Similar to Palczewski, Kramer probably needs another year of success to be on the majority of draft boards in 2021, making it no big surprise he chose to return. The Illini are lucky to have one of the league’s best centers, however, as a leader on and off the field.

“It means the world to be on this team another year,” Kramer said. “I was super frustrated with how the season went for myself and our team. This is an opportunity that I just couldn’t pass up. I’m really looking forward to next year and just super thankful that I get another chance to have a final go at it.”

Left tackle Vederian Lowe announced his return shortly after Kramer, which to many was the most surprising of the three. 

“After talking with my family and Coach Bielema, I have decided to return to the University of Illinois for the 2021 season,” Lowe wrote on social media. “Being a part of the Fighting Illini family has been an amazing experience, and I look forward to putting on the orange & blue for one more season before going to the next level.”

Lowe was also thrown into the offensive line mix as a freshman, and after four years of getting better, he finished as an All-Big Ten player for the first time on the honorable mention team. Despite his success, Lowe isn’t regarded as a projected draft pick. He’s also engaged and has a son. 

It was a common thought that after four years of giving his all to the team and starting a family, Lowe would end his Illinois career after his senior year. But Lowe is back for more, and the Illini should feel lucky.

“(Leaving for family) was definitely a thought,” Lowe said. “(But) everybody plays a part. (Vederian’s fiancé’s family) is down here so they help take care of my son and what not. Everybody plays a part in it and takes the stress off, so I didn’t feel pressured into jumping into something before the timing was right.”

Lowe has worked as hard as anyone on the team over the last four seasons, and, despite inconsistency issues early on, has cleaned up a lot of his game. With more improvement to his game, it is possible for Lowe to end up getting to the NFL. In the meantime, however, he’ll be working with Palczewski and Kramer to try and get Illinois to another bowl game in 2021.

Palczewski, Kramer and Lowe all returning brings back strength and experience to an offensive line that has seen these three players make a difference over the past four seasons. For Lowe, he is very optimistic as to what the three of them can bring in another season together.

“It’ll be great,” Lowe said. “We’ve already played with each other for so long. We’ve already built such great chemistry with each other. I just think that everything can only be better. We can only just build off what we’ve done. We can only all become greater men and better football players as the time goes on. I think that will carry over and transition into us winning football games.”

Blake Jeresaty will finally make his Illinois debut in 2021, projected to start at right guard. He missed the 2020 season due to a shoulder injury suffered before the season started.

Jeresaty is expected to bring a lot to the Illinois offensive line after being named an FCS-All American after his junior season at Wofford. He has a similar body type to Kramer, standing at six-foot-two and weighing 295 pounds, but he should be able to make up for it with his skillset and experience.

Verdis Brown, a redshirt sophomore in 2020, won the battle for right guard after Jeresaty went down with an injury and started for the Illini. He gave good minutes and showed a lot of promise for his next two seasons at Illinois. Despite playing right guard, he could shift to left guard and protect the quarterback’s blind side in 2021.

Julian Pearl, who was also thrown into the mix this year due to injuries and coronavirus absences, will be back for his junior season in 2021 after making his first career start at Nebraska this year. Alex Pihlstrom, who made his first career start against Purdue this year and earned a scholarship after initially joining the team as a walk-on, is in a similar situation to Pearl. Both will be competing for the fifth starting job in 2021 and will see the field regardless of whether or not they start.

This offensive line will be key to determining the success of Illinois’ offense in 2021. Protection starts up front, and the Illini seem to have the experience and skills to be near the top of the conference.

The starting quarterback job should be up for grabs between Brandon Peters, who announced his return to the team on Tuesday, and Isaiah Williams, who will be a redshirt sophomore and runs the ball at a high level.

Whoever the quarterback maybe, they should expect to have a good amount of time to throw the ball next season. Having time in the pocket to make decisions can make or break a quarterback, and getting hit every play wears you out. 

The running game was a major part of Illinois offensive success in 2020, and with running backs Chase Brown and Mike Epstein returning, the run game should be in full effect in 2021, yet another area the o-line will help with. 

Creating holes and blocking for running backs is everything in a rushing game, and these players at the offensive line should be able to do just that for the rushing attack. In 2018, Palczewski, Kramer and Lowe were part of an offensive line that paved the way for the most improved run game in the nation. 

With two good running backs and dual-threat quarterbacks behind them, if the offensive line can do what’s expected of them in 2021, they’ll be setting the offense up to be very successful in 2021 under new offensive coordinator Tony Petersen. Three players returning for an extra year and an FCS All-American will lead the way for an offensive line that could be as good as anyone next year.

 

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