CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois offensive line didn’t get much love last year.
Giving up 39 sacks, worst in the Big Ten and 111th nationally, will make for a grumpy fan base.
“I don’t feel pressure,” said A.J. Ricker, the offensive line’s third coach in the last year. “I love being the underdog and playing the underdog role.”
The former Western Michigan assistant coach who was a starting center at Missouri from 2000-2003 will play that card to his unit.
Probably every day leading up to the season opener on Aug. 31 against Southern Illinois.
“Coach Ricker is emphasizing more on how we move our feet instead of how we just come off the ball as hard as we can,” left tackle Simon Cvijanovic said. “We’re being more efficient coming off the ball as far as taking the right steps, getting our hands inside (and) getting lower pad level. We played really high last year, and already, we’ve come a long, long way from that.”
Cvijanovic is feeling more comfortable at left tackle after making the full-time switch from right tackle, where he started nine games last year.
“Spring was a little bit rough at the beginning,” Cvijanovic said. “At the spring game, I felt 100 times better than I did at the start of spring ball. I’m feeling really good now.”
Two-year starter Michael Heitz should line up next to Cvijanovic at left guard, with Alex Hill replacing Graham Pocic at center.
Hill has started three games at guard in his first two seasons, but never at center.
That should change when the Salukis arrive in Champaign.
“Coach Ricker’s been the difference for us, I think,” Hill said. “It was really a breath of fresh air when he got here. He’s really helped us with our technique, and he’s a real big effort guy. He never lets us slack off. That’s been the best thing for us.”
Hill said he stays in contact with Pocic and doesn’t mind reaching out for advice.
“Graham was like my big brother when he was here,” Hill said. “We still keep in touch. I text him and ask him questions. He’s always willing to help me out. It’s been a real easy transition.”
Next to Hill is right guard Teddy Karras, who started all 12 games last fall.
Sixth-year senior Corey Lewis rounds out the unit at right tackle.
Maturity isn’t an issue for the Illini offensive linemen.
After all, Karras reminded Lewis of the fact at lunch this week.
When Lewis joined Illinois for the 2008 season, Karras was still in eighth grade.
“We have no more excuses up front,” Lewis said. “We’ve got a lot of guys with experience. We’re bringing that physical mentality. That was something we really tried to harp on this offseason was really trying to demonstrate with our play and bring it every day.”
Cvijanovic knows doubt still lingers about the improvement of the unit. But he’s hopeful the concerns won’t last long.
“We definitely have a chip on our shoulder,” he said. “I feel like a lot of that negativity towards the O-Line will be washed away with how we play this year.”
B.J. Bello worked with the Orange squad during Thursday afternoon’s practice session.
With the Wednesday morning injury of Eric Finney, the projected starter at the STAR position, Bello went with the starters on Thursday at the hybrid linebacker/defensive back spot.
“B.J. did a good job,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said of the redshirt freshman from Lincoln-Way West. “He had numerous tackles in the spring game. He’s young, but he’s been here now. He runs well. Just as any freshman, he has to mature.”
Illinois utilized Mike Svetina in the STAR role during Thursday morning’s practice.
Safety Earnest Thomas is another possibility at the position, but Beckman kept the junior in the secondary on Thursday.
“The only one that made the move was Mike to see how he would respond to playing out on the perimeter,” Beckman said. “He was really an outside (linebacker) in high school who we knew could get big. He moves well in space.”
What was learned
Nathan Scheelhaase doesn’t mind the split-squad practice format Illinois has used the first four days this week.
“Being able to split practice up, you know you’re getting a lot of guys great quality reps, so that’s helping us out as quarterbacks and as a receiving corps in general,” the quarterback said. “I think we’re going to be a team that has a lot of receivers, a lot of tight ends and running backs play. I think we’re going to have a lot of guys interchangeable that will be able to go in and make plays.”
Then again, he’s OK with switching to the full-squad workout Illinois will undergo Friday morning.
“We haven’t been all together as a team yet, so it will be exciting just to get everybody together and everybody going,” he said. “I think it will add more intensity to practice. We’ve really had a lot of guys come out as ready as I’ve seen. That’s been really good. That speaks well to our our strength staff and what we did this summer that we all came ready to roll when camp started up.”
What was said
“Dubuque’s training camp was nothing like this. It was kind of laid-back. This is a grind. It’s kind of grueling on the body, but as long as you take care of your body and do what you got to do, it’s a fun time. You get closer to your teammates and you get better. It’s a good experience.”
— Walk-on tight end Tim Clary, who last year at this time was getting ready to play football at the University of Dubuque, a Division III school in Iowa.