With the sun fading from Memorial Stadium on Monday, the Illinois football team finished practice and the defense jogged off the turf, but the offense remained. With new offensive line coach A.J. Ricker barking out instructions and encouragement, the offense — from the running backs to the offensive linemen — ran a series of gassers, four sideline-to-sideline sprints, totaling 253 yards.
Inevitably bringing up the rear on each gasser were the offensive linemen. Despite heftier frames, the linemen finished every sprint. When asked what the crime deserving of such punishment was, offensive lineman Ted Karras said it was a lackadaisical practice.
Fellow offensive lineman Tony Durkin had another explanation.
“It was a Monday,” he said.
While the gasser punishment doesn’t happen every practice, running is nothing new to the Illini this spring. Under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, the offensive pace has been increased to levels the Illini are not used to.
“At times we go really fast,” Ricker said. “The guys are sitting there trying to think and trying to breathe. It’s something they’ll get used to.”
Since Cubit took over the offense, the Illini have been doing what Durkin calls “sparring periods,” during which the offense tries to run 15 plays in five minutes without stopping. Durkin said it doesn’t seem like a lot; but when they get the ball moving, the pace starts to catch up to them.
The tempo is something new to the entire offense, but Karras thought the line has adjusted to the new system well. He called himself and his teammates “the most adaptable group of o-lineman in the nation.” And with Ricker being the group’s third offensive line coach in a little more than a year, he might just be right.
But the numbers could prove otherwise. Ricker will have his hands full turning around a line that had trouble protecting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase in 2012. The Illini surrendered 39 sacks last season and totaled just 3,560 yards on offense, last in the Big Ten in both categories.
In addition to the new offensive system, the offensive line will have to find a way to replace graduated seniors and NFL-hopefuls Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton, who started a combined 71 games for Illinois over their careers. Pocic made 34 of his 36 career starts from the center position.
For much of the spring, the starting line has consisted of right tackle Corey Lewis, Karras at right guard, center Alex Hill, left guard Mike Heitz and left tackle Simon Cvijanovic. All five probable starters have started multiple games in their careers.
“We’ve got a lot of guys that have played in games,” Ricker said. “Maybe not the 40-something starts or whatever some of those guys that left had. Experience is experience, I don’t care if you’ve played in five games or 45 games.”
Ricker has liked what he’s seen, especially from some of the younger players. He said the biggest thing that his offensive linemen need to work on is mental toughness, and that it’s not uncommon to see them hanging their heads when things get tough.
It has been a work in progress all spring long for the entire offense. Durkin, who has been practicing in a number of positions with the second string, said between gasps shortly after running the gassers, “You’ve just have got to have the attitude that when you put on the pads you’re ready to go right away.”
Sean can be reached at email@example.com and @sean_hammond.