Asmussen | Under familiar face McClain, offense's big men building confidence in spring

 

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CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois offensive line family has a new "Dad." On Monday, they had their first meal together.

Offensive line coach Bob McClain went with the players to Champaign's Alexander Steakhouse. (What, did you think they'd go to a salad place?)

"Once you start being around the coaches and all the people in your group off the field, that's where it really becomes special," Illini offensive tackle Alex Palczewski said. "That's where you really form a bond."

A bunch of big guys eating steaks can't be cheap. How much was the bill?

"I'm not going to give you an exact number, but I think they had to slaughter an entire cow for us," Palczewski said.

The transition from Luke Butkus (now an assistant line coach with the Green Bay Packers) to McClain has been smooth.

"It's been very good," Palczewski said. "He's a very smart coach, and we trust him."

It helps that McClain was on the Illinois staff in 2018. He served as an offensive analyst.

The players saw him around and knew he was part of the team.

"Whenever you had a question, he would always be open to answer it and always would help you improve," Palczewski said.

The Illinois running backs, who spent time with McClain in 2018, shared their positive thoughts with the linemen.

"They told us, 'You guys are lucky. This guy has such a high football IQ,'" Palczewski said. "We knew that would help us a lot."

Another selling point: McClain has a close relationship with Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith, who brought him to C-U.

The two have worked together for years at multiple stops. There is a comfort level that is hard to beat.

"The day he was introduced, (offensive coordinator) Rod Smith came to us and said, 'Hey, men, if I ever became a head coach that's the first hire I'm making,'" Palczewski said. "We knew the Guru (Smith) trusts him, so we trust him."

Personality profile

Of course, McClain and Butkus are not the same guy. They have different techniques.

Butkus wasn't shy about using salty language during practice. To the point where you wanted to shout "earmuffs" if there were kids around.

McClain's style is more subtle. Somewhat.

"He still gets after people," Palczewski said. "He's still an O-line coach and he's still mean. But he's not mean just to be mean. He knows what you are capable of and he always wants to push you there.

"All he wants is for us to be successful and to help us win here."

The linemen have bought in.

"We love him," Palczewski said.

McClain inherits one of the best position groups on the team. Four starters return and the lone opening is expected to be filled by Alabama transfer Richie Petitbon.

The linemen have talked about capturing the Joe Moore Award, which goes to the best unit in the country. Oklahoma took it in 2018.

It's a high goal.

"We just want to win that, and I think we're on track to," Palczewski said.

To make it happen, the line needs to improve each day. And learn from its mistakes.

The line struggled at times during Saturday's spring game. On Monday, those on it got to work.

"We watched the film, realized what we did wrong and then we fixed it," Palczewski said.

Work to do

Wednesday's morning practice was the last one of the spring. So far, so good, McClain said.

"It's definitely going in the right direction," McClain said. "Every day, we're identifying stuff that we want to improve on and get better at and take the next step. You're never where you necessarily want to be."

Running backs, quarterbacks and receivers are judged as individuals. With the offensive line, it's a group thing.

"It's five guys, almost like a basketball team," McClain said. "If one does something wrong, it affects the other four. They've got to be really close-knit."

McClain is thrilled with the approach the linemen are taking.

"The kids have had a phenomenal attitude," he said. "They have a passion to want to be really good, to be great."

Projected starters Kendrick Green and Vederian Lowe missed time during the spring with injuries, but will be back in time for training camp.

"It always hurts having guys out," McClain said. "The good thing is it gives younger guys experience."

Personally, the promotion has meant a change for McClain. Last year, he lived with Smith.

"It's been good," McClain said. "I'm still working and getting everything settled in."

After his promotion in February, McClain had to work on recruiting, then jump into spring football.

Now, it's back to recruiting.

"I've always enjoyed the recruiting part of it," McClain said.

His primary recruiting area will be Charlotte, N.C., where he has strong ties. He will also work in South Carolina, south Georgia and Jacksonville, Fla., as well.

"I will also position recruit offensive line wherever I need to go," McClain said.

Charlotte, the 22nd-largest metro area in the nation, is a growing hotbed for football recruiting.

"There's a ton of talent," McClain said.

 

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.