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Illinois offensive linemen out to prove they’re not a weak link

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Updated: August 14, 2013 9:08PM



It turns out Corey Lewis hasn’t been at Illinois forever. But the sixth-year offensive tackle and graduate student likes to tell his Illini teammates a story that developed over the two seasons before he began his college career in 2008.

It starts in 2006, with the Illini suffering through a 2-10 season. And it takes a dramatic turn in 2007, with the offensive line paving the way for a 1,681-yard season for running back Rashard Mendenhall and an utterly unexpected trip to the Rose Bowl.

Lewis hopes his team — particularly the O-line and running back Donovonn Young, who has had a dominant training camp — can add to the story in the months ahead.

“It doesn’t even have to be the Rose Bowl,” Lewis said. “I’ll take any bowl game.”

These Illini already set the stage for a dramatic flourish with their 2-10 dud of 2012.

Now comes the hard part.

“I guess what Corey was trying to put across to the football team is that anything can get done if you believe it can be done,” coach Tim Beckman said.

That’s probably a bit of a romantic stretch, isn’t it? These Illini, let’s just say they’ll leave others to fight over Pasadena. But where is it written that Year 2 under Beckman has to be a total bummer?

Read any preseason take on the Illini that came out in the spring or early summer, and it’ll tell you the offensive line is one of the weakest units on a bad team. We’d prefer to give it some time to find out how true that is. At this point, we can say for certain that line coach A.J. Ricker has almost no depth with which to work.

But it would be a mistake to categorize Lewis, left tackle Simon Cvijanovic, guards Ted Karras and Michael Heitz and center Alex Hill as a collective weakness.

The starting unit has significant playing experience. Though last season’s line was often overmatched and at times overwhelmed, the entire offense was built to fail. The welcome arrival of coordinator Bill Cubit isn’t a big deal for the Illini just because of their crowded situation at quarterback. Schematically — think quick throws and downhill runs — it gives their line a tremendous opportunity to compete and succeed.

“I’ve seen a more physical group,” Beckman said. “I’ve seen a group that’s more cohesive. They play together better. They’re communicating better. . . . They’re working extremely hard — and I see a little bit of tenacity, also, in that group.”

It’s that downhill running game — with an ideal ramrod back in the 220-pound Young — that has spread confidence, and a bit of an attitude, from headstrong types Lewis and Karras throughout the wall up front.

Toward the end of the team’s first official scrimmage of camp early this week, Young finished off his last of many impressive, highly physical runs by beating a defender to the goal line and delivering a load of contact for good measure. The junior was so pumped up, he ran to athletic director Mike Thomas and slapped him five.

Halfway back to the Illini sideline, Young was intercepted by Lewis.

“We’re the reason you scored,” the 6-6, 310-pounder told him.

There’s that new attitude.

Not that Lewis and his cohorts think they’ve got it all figured out. The group knows the months ahead will be enormously challenging. Collectively, these starters haven’t proved much at all.

“Fix one thing today,” Ricker likes to tell them. “Don’t try to fix everything.”

Every one thing helps turn a page of a story that may not be over just yet.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @SLGreenberg



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