Searching for the right mix up front

Searching for the right mix up front

With possible exceptions brought on by untraceable wartime necessities, no Illini freshman in 100 years opened the first day of practice as a starter on the offensive line.

It just didn't happen. Wise coaches made freshmen earn their spot, or redshirted them.

The UI's best freshman offensive lineman was Wheaton's Jim Juriga. Early in the 1982 season, when head coach Mike White urged line coach Bob Smith to promote his undersized rookie, Smith replied: "Juriga isn't ready." To which White countered: "Make him ready."

Juriga started six games and was picked by Football News as the nation's MVP among freshmen offensive linemen. His name surfaced for comparisons last season when 320-pound Texan Darta Lee, dropped from the team after his May arrest, started two early games at guard.

Boyd a name to watch

Earlier this month, massive Larry Boyd of Trinity Catholic in St. Louis got a quick, though temporary, jump on Juriga. Boyd was installed as a starting tackle on the first day of practice and stayed there several days until "concussion protocol" brought about his move to the sideline late last week. He hasn't practiced since but offered quick evidence that coach Lovie Smith (1) has some promising freshmen and (2) isn't afraid to give them a shot.

Moreover, Smith is anxious to add punch and power to an offensive front that in 2016 suffered the indignity of finishing 127th out of 128 FBS teams in first downs (on average, eight rushing, six passing, one via penalties).

"When we recruited these freshmen, part of our appeal was the fact they'd have an early opportunity to play," Smith said. "What we had to say in recruiting is playing out. We have spots where we're going to have new starters."

Boyd is 6 feet, 6 inches. There is hesitation here to recite his weight because he checked in a bit heavy — listed at 360 — and is working down. He has exceptional foot movement for a young man that size.

Rearranging the line

Meanwhile, as minor injuries last week temporarily reduced the offensive line practice group to nine — sophomore Adam Solomon has performed on first and second units simultaneously — line coach Luke Butkus is mixing and matching like never before. And on Wednesday, redshirt freshman Andrew Trainer (6-7, 265) made the move from tight end to tackle.

Meanwhile, another freshman has worked with the first team in Boyd's absence. Alex Palczewski, up from 260 pounds at Prospect to 292 now, opened the first day as backup center, spent a brief time at tackle and has been running with the first unit this week at guard.

"It says a lot about the type of athlete we think he is, that we would play him at three positions," said Smith.

Also moving around is Jacksonville's Gabe Megginson, who opened at guard and, with Boyd out, has spent time at tackle.

Finding the best five

Butkus' shuffling mode is contrary to the way he played (1998-01) at Illinois when he was a center and strictly a center. He said this week:

"It's still early. At some point, we need to build cohesiveness with a five-man unit. We have a few ideas as a staff in moving people around, and we have to figure out where they best fit.

"Ultimately we want to put the best five players on the field. If a player can handle more than one position, that might help later on. As an example, Dave Diehl played both guard and tackle for us, and he did the same in the NFL. He was our sixth man (in 2001) and came back to start as a senior. He played more games for the New York Giants than almost anyone."

More moves to be made

Said Butkus of Palczewski:

"He is a big strong kid and he's very bright. He's conscious of what's going on, and he loves football. Is he technique-savvy? No. He only played varsity football one year because he was hurt as a junior. But you look for traits ... you look for size, strength, toughness and brains — and he has those qualities.

"Ultimately, we just want to play our best five up front, and we'll have a set unit for Ball State."

Hinsdale redshirt Doug Kramer has been the No. 1 center every day. If Boyd returns at tackle opposite Christian DiLauro, that would allow Megginson's return to guard opposite Nick Allegretti. DiLauro and Jordan Fagan are the only seniors in the group, which numbers 14 with the addition of Trainer ... but Boyd, Vederian Lowe and Jake Stover have missed extensive time.

 

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com

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